FATEHGARH-SAHIB, India — When the unusually heavy rains flooded the fields and the equally unusual heat shrivelled the seeds, it not only cut Ranjit Singh’s wheat crop by nearly half.
It took him, and almost all the other households in his village in northern India, much further from financial stability in a country where the majority of people earn their living on farms. Like many Indians, Mr Singh is saddled with huge debts and wondering how he will pay it back as a warming world makes agriculture more and more precarious.
For India and other South Asian countries, home to hundreds of millions of humanity’s most vulnerable, a seemingly bottomless source of challenges – poverty, food security, health, governance – has only grown as the region moves to the front lines of climate change is located.
Global warming is no longer a distant prospect that officials with short election terms can choose to look away from. Increasing volatility in weather patterns means greater risk of disaster and serious economic damage to countries that are doing all they can to increase growth and development and overcome the devastation of the pandemic to lives and livelihoods.
In Pakistan, which is grappling with an economic crisis and political collapse, a cholera outbreak in the southwest left the local government on the run just as it tried to contain massive wildfires.
In Bangladesh, the floods that came before the monsoons left millions stranded, complicating long-term efforts to improve the country’s response to chronic flooding. In Nepal, officials are trying to drain glacial lakes on the brink of bursting before washing out Himalayan villages facing a new phenomenon: too much rain, too little drinking water.
And in India, which is the region’s largest grain supplier and provides food rations to hundreds of millions of its own citizens, the reduced wheat crop has revived longstanding food security concerns and curbed the government’s ambitions to feed the world.
South Asia has always been hot, the monsoons are always soaked. And it’s far from the only one struggling with new weather patterns. But this region, home to nearly a quarter of the world’s population, experiences such extreme climatic conditions, from early heavy rainfall and flooding to scorching temperatures and prolonged heatwaves, that they are increasingly becoming the norm, not the exception.
“In March we wore coats,” says Mr Singh, the farmer in Punjab, northern India. “This year, from March 1, we used fans.”
That month, March was the hottest month in India and Pakistan in 122 years of record, while rainfall was 60 to 70 percent below the norm, scientists say. The heat came earlier than usual this year and temperatures remained high — reaching 49 degrees Celsius, about 120 degrees Fahrenheit, in New Delhi in May.
Such a heat wave is now 30 times more likely than it was before the industrial age, estimates Krishna AchutaRao, a climate researcher at the Indian Institute of Technology. He said that if the Earth warms to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial temperatures, from the current 1.2 degrees, such extreme patterns will become much more common — perhaps once every 50 years, or even every five.
Due to the extreme weather, the yield of the national wheat crop in India this year was at least 3.5 percent lower, according to the first information. In Punjab, traditionally the wheat basket of India, the decline was about 15 percent, and in some districts as much as 30 percent.
In the Fatehgarh-Sahib area of Punjab, one of the hardest hit, farmers like Mr Singh faced a double disaster. Heavy rains came earlier and lasted longer than usual, flooding the fields. Those who managed to drain the water hoped the worst was over. But in March came the heat wave.
When the intensity became apparent, the Indian government suddenly backtracked on a decision to expand wheat exports, with global supplies already reduced by the war in Ukraine. Officials called rising international prices and the challenges of food security at home.
Malancha Chakrabarty, a researcher at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi who studies climate change and development, said India is “extremely vulnerable” to food security threats, not only because of the decline in production, but also because much of the population is struggling to cope. afford food as prices rise.
“We’re looking at a huge population that is on the brink of being extremely poor,” said Dr. Chakrabarty. Despite significant progress in reducing extreme poverty, she said, many people are just surviving and “couldn’t take a shock.”
Wheat crop damage has again shocked the underperforming agricultural sector in India. In many places, traditional crops are particularly vulnerable to groundwater depletion and erratic monsoons. Farmers and government disagree on how far to go in opening agricultural markets. Farmers who are deeply in debt are committing suicide more and more.
The agricultural crisis has pushed many to the cities in search of other work. But India’s economic growth, which is largely geared towards the top, is not increasing employment. And much of the city’s work is outdoor work, which has been made dangerous by this year’s extreme heat.
For those still working on the farms, global warming is changing the nature of what they put in the ground.
Agricultural scientists once focused on developing high-yielding varieties to meet India’s food needs, after a history of devastating famines. In recent decades, the priority has been to increase the heat resistance of crops. In laboratories, seeds are tested at temperatures that are five degrees Celsius higher than outside.
“It’s a dilemma,” said Ratan Tiwari, head of the biotechnology program at the Indian Institute of Wheat and Barley Research in Karnal. “Unless and until you’re sure the heat will be there, of course we won’t give a variety that is heat tolerant, but it’s not the highest yielding.”
The Institute’s scientists have helped develop about 500 varieties of wheat seeds over the past few decades. What gives Mr. Tiwari and his fellow scientists hope is that the heat tolerance of the varieties is generally improving.
“Slowly, the genes are piling up in the favorable directions,” he said.
While the decline in the wheat crop has hit India most directly, the shocks of climate change do not stop at international borders.
Bangladesh and Nepal depend on India for wheat imports. Rising tides wreak just as much damage in Bangladesh as they do in the neighboring Indian regions of Assam and West Bengal. When waters of heavy rain pour down from the Himalayas, Nepalese officials must try to bring back the endangered rhinoceroses being swept to India.
The problem of flooding in Bangladesh is not new. With hundreds of rivers cutting through the country of 170 million people, hundreds of thousands of rising waters displace each year.
Authorities have gotten better at saving lives through quick evacuations. But they are struggling to predict the timing of floods because of erratic monsoon patterns.
Rayhan Uddin, 35, from the Zakiganj area of Sylhet, Bangladesh, has a tree nursery, farms and approximately 6.5 hectares of paddy fields. Since 2017, his house, paddy fields and ten-year-old nursery have been washed away twice.
“I’ll have to start the nursery again,” he said. “Five years ago the same thing happened.”
Nepal, where a quarter of the population lives below the poverty line, is perhaps the clearest example of how extreme weather events – floods and water shortages on the one hand, increasing wildfires on the other – disrupt life.
Villagers in the Himalayas accustomed to snow are now experiencing heavier rainfall, a phenomenon that is forcing many to migrate. Drinking water is also a major problem as wells dry up with the reduction of snowmelt.
The Nepalese Ministry of Agriculture estimated that about 30 percent of the arable land, mainly in hilly areas, was no longer in use. Across the country, wildfires have increased nearly tenfold in the past two decades.
Downstream, agriculture becomes increasingly precarious and risky: rice production fell by nearly 10 percent last year, with tens of thousands of hectares damaged by flooding that killed dozens of people.
Constant snowmelt due to rising temperatures has increased the number of glacial lakes by hundreds, with about 20 identified as prone to cracking.
In 2016, the Nepalese military drained Lake Imja near Mount Everest to reduce the risk to downstream populations. Authorities are trying to raise money for the immediate draining of four more lakes.
In Pakistan’s troubled Baluchistan region, evidence of an unusual spring was evident for weeks, as skies in several districts turned bright orange as a severe sandstorm blanketed the region. Wildfires on the border of the province burned for weeks, destroying an estimated two million pine and olive trees.
On top of the fires came the plague. Panic gripped the mountain town of Pir Koh after a large number of people – most of them children – suffered from diarrhoea, vomiting and leg cramps. In late April, officials announced a cholera outbreak, which health officials say could be linked to rising temperatures. More than two dozen people died.
As disease outbreaks, floods and crop disasters make headlines, activists and experts are warning of the toll of more constant, routine threats.
“This is everyday climate change at work: a slow-moving shift in environmental conditions that is destroying lives and livelihoods before our very eyes,” said a report outlining how tens of thousands of Bangladeshis lose their homes and crops each year to river erosion.
Bhadra Sharma contributed reporting from Kathmandu, Nepal, Saif Hasnat from Dhaka, Bangladesh, Zia ur-Rehman from Karachi, Pakistan and Suhasini Raj from New Delhi.