World Environment Day 2023: Rural India bears the brunt of climate change
Climate change is a global challenge with local implications; important to build coping mechanisms for rural communities
Rural India is diverse — from coastal regions, deltas and flood plains to deserts, hills, mountains and plateaus. Those living there have diverse aspirations, resources and skills as well. They are marginal farmers, manual wage earners, fisherfolk, animal-rearers, shepherds, nomads and many times a combination of these.
That leaves millions of rural Indians at the mercy of the weather and climate change. Any deviation from standard long-term weather patterns makes them vulnerable to the uncertainties emerging from changing weather patterns with little access to coping mechanisms.
Read more: Nearly 150,000 Indians have died in the past 51 years because of extreme weather: WMO
This happens in many ways.
Rising temperature and heat stress
Most rural Indians eke out their livelihoods under the baking sun. But exposure to heat higher than 38 degrees Celsius is a severe health hazard. At temperatures above 40.6°C, our organs start to fail and the risk of death increases sharply, according to Mridula Ramesh’s book The Climate Solution.
Coping mechanisms to these extreme heat conditions, like access to shade and hydration, are generally unavailable to the workers engaged. The stress worsens for malnourished women, small kids and elderly workers.
The productivity of crops and animals is also badly affected by extreme temperatures. For instance, the increase in temperature in January lowers the yields of wheat and chickpeas. Similarly, the productivity of stressed animals is reduced significantly.
Changing rainfall patterns
Around 120 million marginal farmer households depend on their farming and wages. Their farming practices, like time of field preparations, sowing, selection of varieties, labour availability and water management, have evolved based on prevalent weather patterns for ages.
These aberrations from the typical weather patterns put all the farming operations in total chaos for these resource-poor farmers. This leads to poorer yields and severe economic losses.
The implication of delayed onset of monsoon or failed September rainfalls and untimely rainfall in November for rainfed farmers is well known. It shrinks the whole rural economy and causes huge agrarian distress.
After floods, the farms and waterbodies need to be repaired. Dead livestock has to be restocked. Homes, small businesses and enterprises washed away by the torrents of rain need refinancing.
There is a severe erosion of assets and livelihoods. But more than that, there is hardly any coping mechanism to meet these losses.
During the flood periods, the human tragedy is immense. People survive on the high grounds, roadside and embankments for weeks and months, under plastic tents suffering during the flood and post-flood traumas.
Read more: Budget 2023-24: Whither rural development? Allocation for livelihood and other schemes sees 14% cuts
Droughts are slow destroyers. They slowly suck out the vitality of rural communities.
The income of marginal and livestock farmers is affected by long-term water stress. They find themselves in a fix; they can’t abandon the farm and move away to look for alternatives and find it extremely difficult to continue with it.
Marginal farmers have little control over the water needed for farming and water stress leads to unpredictable yields and reduced income to farmers. With the increasing water stress, farmers will reduce their investment in farming, further reducing productivity.
More droughts also lead to the use of unsustainable already-stressed water sources. These include mining water from deeper layers that can’t be replenished, stealing water from other plots and fighting for water access.
This will lead to a significant reduction in farm incomes and increased dependency of wages from non-farm labour and distress migration. And, of course, with migration, the elderly and children left behind in villages will suffer more.
These unpredictable floods, droughts and rising temperatures will also increase vector-borne diseases like malaria, Kala Azar, dengue, chikungunya, Japanese encephalitis and Zika.
The changing climate also changes the prevailing pattern of vector emergence, their pathogenicity and the severity of vectors. This may create havoc on already scanty health services available to rural communities. These vector-borne diseases can become endemic in rural areas, leading to acute human distress.
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Climate change will also impact the quantity and quality of food available to rural communities.
As already mentioned, the productivity of crops will be adversely affected due to unfavourable weather conditions. But with increasing carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere, there is also a reduction of protein content in food grains like rice and wheat, which are the staples for rural communities.
This reduced nutrition access is compounded by increasing vector-borne diseases in malnourished children and women.
Toll on mental health
The stress and anxiety related to loss of livelihoods, uncertain futures, helplessness and physical stress due to extreme weather conditions also affect the mental health of rural communities.
The anxiety to rebuild their lives and livelihoods or distressed migration to new places, feeling the vulnerability of their existence makes the rural people depressed and may lead to living unhappy lives or even add to farmers’ suicides.
Call for action
Globally, there are discussions on actions around compensation, mitigation and restoration of climate change-related losses. Crucially, there must be actions at the local level.
Each community has a different kind of vulnerability to the risks associated with climate change. The vulnerability reduction action needs to be customised to the specific human and ecological situation.
This will need close interaction with the communities. Universalisation of access to public system support, insurance, easy access to financial systems, diversification of livelihood choices and collective action can reduce the vulnerability of rural communities.
Considering the scale of climate change, the hazards and losses are inevitable; it is important to build coping mechanisms for rural communities too.
Read more: Tax the wealthy: 2 billion people can be lifted from poverty by levying the super-rich, says Oxfam
It is a global challenge with local implications; hence the solution should also be of that scale. Efforts are required everywhere, including the urban communities. The solutions may cover these points:
- Helping the community to understand the spread and depth of the crisis — Often, communities in hilly regions do not appreciate the challenge of rising sea levels. Similarly, the urban folks may not appreciate how the power cuts affect the farmers and their livelihoods.
- Solving water and energy crisis challenges — Investing in rainwater harvesting, checking soil erosions and distributing renewable energy like stand-alone microgrids for rural communities.
- Making the primary healthcare functional
- Nature-based solutions for climate restoration like large-scale reforestation / agroforestry investments and linking them with the livelihoods of local communities.
- Technologies for reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.
- Local-level waste management — Recycle, reuse and compost.
- Local food system — Diversified food production to meet the needs locally, reducing food miles, carbon dioxide, energy and water footprint.
- Diversified livelihoods portfolio for rural communities to bring resilience and reduce vulnerabilities.
Read more: Will India officially be poverty free in 2023?
There are no easy solutions to this global crisis, but we have no choice other than to try everything that may work.
Ashok Kumar is director for farm prosperity at non-profit Transform Rural India
Views expressed are the author’s own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth
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