Extreme rains lead to more rural farmer suicides than droughts: Study

The international study includes data from Indian rural areas while measuring the impact of some weather events on suicides.
A farmer inspects the damaged rice crop due to excess rains.(Satyabrata Tripathy/HT Photo)
A farmer inspects the damaged rice crop due to excess rains.(Satyabrata Tripathy/HT Photo)
Updated on Sep 11, 2020 01:34 PM IST
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Hindustan Times, New Delhi | ByJayashree Nandi | Posted by Abhinav Sahay

Not only drought but flooding or even extreme rainfall leading to excess water availability is linked to higher cases of suicides among those above the age of 15 years in rural areas, a new study has suggested.

In an analysis of 9,456 suicides between 2001 and 2013 in randomly selected rural areas, the researchers found that compared to normal growing seasons, the percentage of deaths due to suicide increased by 18.7% during extremely wet cropping seasons and by 3.6% during extremely dry cropping seasons.

The study led by Robin A Richardson at department of epidemiology, Mailman School of Public Health, Columbia University with researchers from department of epidemiology, biostatistics, and occupational health, McGill University in Canada and IIT Gandhinagar used data from Million Deaths Study (MDS), which monitored the causes of death between 2001 and 2013 among approximately 8.5 million individuals living in randomly selected rural ‘small areas.’

The researchers limited rural areas selected to those with less than 5,000 population, and a density of less than 1,000 per square mile and where more than 25% of male population was engaged in agricultural work.

Water availability was measured with the standardized precipitation evapotranspiration index (SPEI), derived by taking the difference between precipitation amount and potential evapotranspiration during a specified time period.

The team calculated SPEI values using temperature and rain data for districts for the entire growing period from June 1 to March 31. The team found that the most common modes of suicide were poisoning (40%), hanging or strangulation (37%), and burning (10%). Non-suicide deaths saw very minor changes during the same period indicating that they were not linked to extremes in water availability.

“To our knowledge, no studies before ours have investigated the link between suicide and water availability at both extremes. We found, perhaps surprisingly, extremely wet conditions more strongly associated with suicide than extremely dry conditions. Our results were robust to a number of sensitivity analyses,” the study to be published in Science Direct’s environmental research journal in November (the abstract is already published online) has concluded.

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“Very wet conditions can be very damaging to crops because of limited means to mitigate conditions. Extreme drought can be offset by irrigation, extremely wet conditions – such as flooding or torrential rain can result in conditions that are less easily mitigated and are more damaging to crops,” said Vimal Mishra, associate professor, civil engineering, IIT Gandhinagar and co-author of the study.

Statistics collected from the national crime records bureau (NCRB) find that bankruptcy and indebtedness are the top causes of suicide among farmers and cultivators. Poor crop yield can be devastating for those engaged in subsistence agriculture.

“This study looks at how climate change impacts agriculture. Farmers are directly dependent on the environment. There are three categories of people who are particularly vulnerable, those in flood prone or rain fed areas; small and marginal farmers; socially disadvantaged groups like women and Dalits. Climate change is a reality and we are seeing both flash floods and flash droughts. There is extreme rain in a few days followed by no rain for several days. This causes the lives of marginal farmers to go upside down. Insurance mechanisms should serve those affected and PM Kisan should be available to all categories of agricultural workers,” said Ramanjaneyulu GV, executive director, centre for sustainable agriculture, Telangana who read the study.

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According to “Assessment of Climate Change over the Indian Region” a report of the Ministry of Earth Sciences (MoES), released earlier this year, from 1950 onwards, there has been a significant rising trend in the frequency and intensity of extreme heavy rain events over central India, along with a decreasing trend in the moderate rain events.

A study published in Nature journal in 2017 by Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology has concluded that there has been a three-fold rise in extreme rains along the west coast and central India during 1950 to 2015.

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