August 20, 2019
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India’s late monsoon rains a sign of our changing climate

Rajanish Kakade | AP
Rajanish Kakade | AP
A woman holds the hand of a child and wades through a waterlogged street following rainfall Friday in Mumbai, India. India receives its monsoon rains from June to October.

The monsoon rains are finally arriving in central and northern India, but they are two weeks late. It started raining in Mumbai last Monday, and started raining in Delhi days later, but it will have come too late for many people, especially farmers. For some parts of the country, it has been 200 days without rain.

Late May and early June are always brutal in northern India, as the heat builds up and the humidity rises. This year, with the monsoon so delayed, it has been particularly bad, with the temperature hitting 118 degrees Farhenheit in Delhi recently — the hottest June day on record — and 123 degrees Farhenheit in Rajasthan. And countrywide rainfall for this year is down 37 percent.

The Indian government has just created a new Ministry of Water Power to tackle water conservation and management (better late than never), but it can’t solve the problem. Food production is falling, people are dying and unfortunately it’s only going to get worse.

It’s impossible to say how many people have died because of this year’s late monsoon, because India generally only counts people who make it to hospital before they die — and not always even then. But the single state of Bihar reported 184 deaths recently.

A more plausible measure of mortality comes from Europe, where they compare overall mortality in normal times to mortality during a heatwave, and (quite reasonably) assume that the difference is mostly due to the heat deaths. In the record 2003 heatwave in Europe, when temperatures were slightly lower than they have been in northern India this month, an estimated 35,000 to 70,000 people died.

So how many premature deaths from heat were there really in India this month? Probably tens of thousands. And how much food production will be lost this year? Again, you cannot calculate it directly, but I can give you an informed guess.

About a dozen years ago, I was interviewing Dr. Jyoti Parikh, the director of IRADe, a well-known think-tank in New Delhi. Out of the blue, she mentioned that her organization had got the World Bank contract to forecast how much agricultural production India would lose when the average global temperature reached 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit above the pre-industrial average.

The contract was confidential at the time, but the World Bank’s chief economist had given these contracts to private think-tanks in every major country, probably on the assumption that official predictions were being kept secret in most countries so as not to frighten the children. Or should I say the citizens?

In the end, the predictions commissioned by the World Bank also remained unpublished. Indeed, they are secret even down to the present, because, after all, it is governments that pay for the World Bank. But Parikh told me the prediction for India. At 3.6 degrees Farhenheit, India would lose 25 percent of its food production. We are now at about 2.4 degrees Fahrenheit worldwide, so shall we say 10 percent of food production lost now in a bad year?

It’s not just India, of course. The British Meteorological Office says there is a 10 percent chance that the average global temperature will exceed 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit at least once in the next five years. (That’s the Paris climate change agreement’s “never-exceed” target.) At the current rate of greenhouse gas emissions, it’s going to take a major miracle to avoid hitting 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit within 15 years.

At that level significant numbers of people will be dying of the heat every year, and much bigger numbers will be starving as food production fails, especially in the tropical and subtropical parts of the world. But don’t feel left out if you live in the more temperate parts of the planet.

The wildfires have already started again in Canada and California, with predictions that they may be even worse than last year. And Europe is experiencing a heat wave bringing temperatures above 104 degrees Fahrenheit to much of the continent. Nobody gets off free.

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is “Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work).”

 



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