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Extreme climate risk

India’s food security and economic growth are threatened by recurring droughts, floods and rising sea levels, writes Cooshalle Samuel.

india Updated: Dec 17, 2007 01:31 IST
Cooshalle Samuel

Dawdling at an annual growth rate of below 2 per cent, India’s agrarian economy is already suffering from stagnant production, declining per capita food availability and farmer suicides. Add to this meteorological mayhem and India becomes one of the most precariously placed countries in relation of food security.

With two- thirds of its agricultural land still rainfed and 60 per cent of its population depending on agriculture and allied jobs, India needs to worry the most about climate change. A recent study in UK’s reputed journal Environmental Research Letters notes that agriculture losses, worth $5 billion annually, from 1981 to 2002, can be correlated with temperature rises over that period and that almost 30 per cent of the variation in the global agricultural yields especially of wheat, barley and maize can be explained by this temperature rise.

With India being the second largest producer of wheat and the fifth largest producer of maize in the world, climate change is clearly making a dent in our climate sensitive food production. In Haryana, which accounts for 12.7 per cent of the country's wheat production, the yields have already started slipping. According to data complied by the CCS Haryana Agricultural University, with maximum temperature rising by 3ºC during February-March period in the past seven years, wheat productivity has declined from 4,106 kg/ha in 2000-01 to 3,937 kg/ha in 2003-04.

Another example is of Orissa that has been declared disaster affected for 95 out of the last 105 years. It has suffered floods for 50 years, droughts for 32 and cyclone for 11 years. Orissa’s average temperature rise of 1ºC in the last 50 years has triggered a series of extreme weather conditions that have according to a CSE factsheet reduced its food production by a staggering 40 per cent.

In a first of its kind perception survey of farmers and farm dependent people, Water Initiatives Orissa (WIO), a Sambalpur based NGO, has found that agricultural production has fallen in the last five years. Conducted through reply postcards, the survey recorded perceptions of over 2,000 respondents. The WIO convenor Ranjan Panda attributes this trend to decreasing land productivity and adverse climatic conditions like delay in monsoon, erratic rainfall and freak weather.

Between the years 1991 and 2005, 2.2 per cent of area has turned barren and uncultivable, 3.8 per cent has stayed fallow. A whopping 7.7 per cent of the state’s area has turned unfit for sustainable agriculture in just over a decade, notes another WIO study on desertification in Orissa.

The trend of declining agricultural productivity also applies to the rest of India. Agriculture scientist, Professor MS Swaminathan told HT that the overall impact of climate change will be disastrous for our food security since more frequent occurrence of drought and floods as well as rise in sea level will threaten the livelihoods of a vast majority of Indians.

IPCC Chairman, RK Pachauri has pointed out India’s 0.68 ºC temperature rise has already brought down the country’s wheat yields by 5-10 per cent. Add to this FAO Chief Jacqeus Diouf’s recent warning that greater frequency of drought and floods could make India lose 18 per cent of its total cereal production in the future, and the picture becomes real gloomy for India food security.