Climate change is a very big challenge in farming: Gaon Connection Survey

Rising temperature, erratic rainfall and extreme weather events are some of the impacts of climate change that are increasing agriculture risks in India

Nidhi Jamwal

Nidhi Jamwal   27 Jun 2019 12:08 PM GMT

In a unique national rural survey conducted by Gaon Connection last month in 19 states of the country, every fifth farmer blamed the changing climate for adverse impacts on farming. These included crop failure, loss in crop productivity, damages to standing crops, new pest attacks and a changing cropping pattern.

In Karnataka, which at present is reeling under an acute drought, all the interviewed farmers listed climate change as number one threat to agriculture. In Maharashtra and Sikkim, changing climate is topmost concern for every second farmer interviewed as part of the survey.

The science of climate change

Climate change refers to a change in the state of the climate that can be identified by changes persisting for an extended period, typically decades or longer. Climate change may be due to natural internal processes or external forcings like volcanic eruptions or anthropogenic (human-caused) changes.

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) makes a distinction between climate change due to human factors, and climate variability due to natural causes. It defines climate change as "a change of climate which is attributed directly or indirectly to human activity that alters the composition of the global atmosphere and which is in addition to natural climate variability observed over comparable time periods."

Whereas farmers in rural India do not understand scientific terminologies of UNFCCC, they are first-hand witnesses of the changing climate, which has a direct bearing on their livelihoods and the nation's food security.

"Between when I was young and now when I am 92, there are perceptible changes in the climate," said Til Bahadur Chhetri, a cardamom farmer from Hee Patal village in West Sikkim. "Winters have become warm and dry, and continuous soft downpour for several days in monsoon season, locally called jhari, is missing. Several fruit bearing trees have disappeared from our forests, whereas new pests are attacking our crops. My crop yield of large cardamom has declined, too," said Chhetri.

These climate change impacts on agriculture are acknowledged in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)'s report, 'Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability', which notes: "Based on many studies covering a wide range of regions and crops, negative impacts of climate change on crop yields have been more common than positive impacts (high confidence)."

The 2014 report goes on to warn that climate change has negatively affected wheat and maize yields for many regions in the world, including India. For the major crops (wheat, rice, and maize) in tropical and temperate regions, climate change without adaptation is projected to negatively impact production for local temperature increases of 2°C or more above late-20th-century levels.

"High temperature has severe impacts on rice and wheat production. Global wheat and rice production are estimated to fall by 6% and 10% for each degree Celsius of temperature rise, respectively," Om Prakash Ghimire, research scholar at the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), Hyderabad told Gaon Connection.

High night temperature is more deleterious than high day temperature for rice production. Similarly, high temperature increases chances of pest and disease incidences which ultimately cause crop loss. It has been reported that rise in temperature will lead to reduced nutrition quality of grains, added Ghimire.

Rising heat and changing rainfall pattern

In 2013, the India Meteorological Department (IMD) published a comprehensive monograph titled 'State Level Climate Change Trends in India'. Based on long-term meteorological data from 1951 to 2010, climatological trend analysis was carried out to record changes in annual temperature and annual rainfall across the country.

As per the monograph, state-wise averaged annual mean maximum temperature shows a significant increasing trend over several states including Andhra Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Sikkim, Tamil Nadu and Uttarakhand (see map: Annual mean temperature trends 1951-2010).

The highest increase in annual mean maximum temperatures was observed over Himachal Pradesh (+0.06 degree C per year) followed by Goa (+0.04 degree C per year), Manipur, Mizoram and Tamil Nadu (+0.03 degree C per year each).

Further, annual rainfall has decreased over states such as Chhattisgarh, Himachal Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Punjab, Sikkim and Uttar Pradesh, notes the IMD report. The highest increase and decrease in annual rainfall were observed over Meghalaya (+14.68 millimetre per year), and Andaman and Nicobar (-7.77 millimetre per year), respectively.

Between 1951 and 2010, Uttar Pradesh has recorded annual rainfall decrease of minus 4.42 millimetre per year (see map: Annual rainfall trends 1951-2010).

Last year, IMD scientists published another study in Mausam Quarterly Journal that has analysed long-term trend of annual and seasonal rainfall over different districts and meteorological sub-divisions of the country from 1901 to 2013. It also carried out annual rainfall trend analysis between 1961 and 2013.

Based on the rainfall analysis, the researchers found that between 1961 and 2013, 64 districts (10.1 per cent) show an increasing trend of annual rainfall, whereas 85 districts (13.4 per cent) show a decreasing trend in the country.

Uttar Pradesh has maximum number of districts (32) showing a decreasing annual rainfall trend, records the 2018 study. These districts include Agra, Aligarh, Etawah, Firozabad, Gorakhpur, Kanpur, Mathura, Unnao, etc.

Meanwhile, several other studies in the Himalayas show that between 1975 and 2006, the mean temperatures in the Himalayan alpine zones has increased by 0.6°C to 1.3°C. These changes have a direct impact on local vegetation and agriculture.

Climate change impacts on agriculture

"It seems as if the weather Gods are angry with us. Rains don't arrive on time. And, when it rains, it pours so heavily that our crops are destroyed and topsoil is washed away. Every year, unseasonal hailstorms flatten our standing rabi crop," lamented Manoj Laxmanrao Shembde Patil, a farmer from Khade village in Georai taluka of drought-hit Beed in Maharastra.

The changing rainfall pattern and increasing incidence of extreme weather events is a huge concern as the country's water and food security is at a risk.

About 61 per cent of India's farmers practice rain-fed agriculture and 52 per cent of the total land under agriculture is unirrigated and rain-fed. Also, India ranks first in rain-fed farming, both in area and value of produce.

Of the total pulses, oilseeds and cotton produced in the country, 80 per cent pulses, 73 per cent oilseeds and 68 per cent cotton come from rain-fed agriculture, as recorded in a NITI Aayog document.

Moreover, rainfed areas in the country support 75 per cent goat population, 64 per cent sheep population and 78 per cent cattle population.

"Villages in kandi [drought-prone] belt of Jammu are completely dependent on the rains for kharif and rabi crops. In the last decade or two, rainfall pattern seems to have changed," said Ravinder Singh Jamwal, sarpanch [village head] of Lower Jandial village of Jammu district.

"Earlier, winter rains used to start from late December and continue till March in the form of jhari — continuous, slow rainfall for two to three days. Such rains are rare now, thus directly impacting our rabi crop of kanak [wheat]," he added.

According to Arvind Prakash Singh, senior scientist and incharge of the All India Coordinated Research Project on Dryland Agriculture, Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences and Technology, Jammu, the farmers of drought-prone belt in Jammu are most vulnerable to erratic rainfall pattern, as majority of them practice subsistence farming and have no coping mechanism to deal with the changing climate and its impact on agriculture.

Stressing on the need for 'right' temperature and adequate rainfall, Ghirmire said: "Erratic rainfall has more severe impacts on dryland and rainfed regions than irrigated areas. Untimely rainfall at the start of sowing season delays sowing process, which leads to reduction in total growing days for plants." Delayed sowing of wheat can lead to high-temperature exposure during late season, thus causing temperature stress in the crop.

The Economic Survey 2018 has recorded changes in average temperature and average precipitation by cropping seasons of kharif and rabi in the country. It notes that between the 1970s and the last decade, kharif rainfall has declined on average by 26 millimeters and rabi rainfall by 33 millimeters. Annual average rainfall for this period has on average declined by about 86 millimeters. During the same time period, there has been an average increase in temperature of about 0.45 degrees C and 0.63 degrees C in the kharif and rabi seasons, respectively.

"A combination of erratic rainfall and high temperature causes more deleterious effects on both rice and wheat production and can reduce the yield upto 80 per cent," warned Ghirmire.

Meanwhile, NITI Aayog notes the annual demand for cereals, pulses, edible oils, vegetables and fruits is rising at a rate of 1.3 per cent, 3 per cent, 3.5 per cent, 3.3 per cent and 5 per cent, respectively.

Already 43 per cent country is facing drought and onset of southwest monsoon this year has been delayed, which has kept farmers on tenterhooks. In spite of a 'normal' monsoon, several pockets of country may remain in the grips of drought, warn climate experts.

Since rains have become erratic and canal irrigation unreliable, several farmers have started mindlessly sucking out groundwater. Between 1950-51 and 2012-13, the share of canal in net irrigated area has declined from 39.8 per cent to 23.6 per cent, whereas groundwater sources has increased from 28.7 per cent to 62.4 per cent, notes NITI Aayog.

The authors of 2018 IMD study rightly warn: "Changes in climate over the Indian region, particularly during the SW [south west] monsoon, would have a significant impact on agricultural production, water resources management and overall economy of the country."

To address challenges arising out of climate change in agriculture sector, the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) initiated a mega project, National Initiative on Climate Resilient Agriculture, in 2010-11. The objectives of this project are to enhance the resilience of Indian agriculture covering crops, livestock and fisheries to climatic variability and climate change through development and application of improved production and risk management technologies.

A number of activities, such as promoting drought, heat and flood resilient crop varieties; improving soil health; adopting water saving technologies; weather based agro-services, etc are being under-taken in one representative gram panchayat in each of the 100 districts selected based on major climatic vulnerability.

Almost every season we lose our crops or there is a decline in crop productivity, said Patil, who alleged government experiments on climate-resilient farming rarely reach the needy farmers. "Last February, hailstorms flattened my standing rabi crop. Then pink bollworm pest destroyed by Bt cotton crop of kharif. Because of drought, I could not do rabi crop early this year. And, so far, I haven't sowed kharif crop as monsoon is delayed. We are at the mercy of a changing climate," added Patil.

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