News reports have put the number of deaths last week in the heat wave sweeping parts of India at more than 500.
The number sounds alarming but is most likely an underestimate. Research shows that India is underreporting heat mortality, which in turn is inhibiting adaptive policies like early warning systems and better public health preparedness.
For one, the government counts only death by heat stroke and heat exhaustion as heat wave deaths. The narrow definition does not account for the way “heat exposure stresses underlying physiological systems”, a study on heat mortality in Ahmedabad said. Heat exposure exacerbates respiratory diseases and renal failure that might not result in same-day deaths but could show up with a time lag of a few days.
The study found that mortality rates in the city of Ahmedabad were 43% higher in May 2010 when the city experienced a heat wave as compared to the same days in 2009 and 2011. An excess of 1,344 deaths occurred in May 2010, relative to the average for the years before and after.
The researchers accessed the day-wise death counts from Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation. Since the cause of the deaths was not documented by officials, it could be argued that the excess deaths in May 2010 may not necessarily be related to the heat. However, the researchers checked the government's epidemic surveillance system to rule out any outbreaks that could have contributed to an increase in mortality rates in 2010 – which implies that, all things the same, more people die in conditions of extreme heat.
The bad news is that heat waves are likely to intensify in the future, according to climate change researchers. Like the rest of the world, over the last century, India has turned hotter, with temperatures rising in the range of 0.8 to 1°C, with an increasing number of hot days.
"The heat waves are projected to be more intense, have longer durations and occur at a higher frequency and earlier in the year," said a research paper published in April 2015. The paper projects future heat waves in India based on multiple climate models. It finds that large parts of southern India and the East and West coasts, which are presently unaffected by severe heat waves, could be severely affected after 2070. This could lead to increased mortality.
The researchers draw attention to the fact that the Indian government does not consider heat waves as a serious risk to human health and heat hazards are not counted among the priorities of its disaster management plan.
"Our results suggest the necessity of adaptation policies to address the adverse effects of heat wave hazards," the paper states. "Although there are limitations in the present approach, our results are the first step in alerting policy makers to plan responses to more intense and persistent heat waves."
How sustainable farming practices can secure India's food for the future
India is home to 15% of the world’s undernourished population.
Food security is a pressing problem in India and in the world. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO), it is estimated that over 190 million people go hungry every day in the country.
Evidence for India’s food challenge can be found in the fact that the yield per hectare of rice, one of India’s principal crops, is 2177 kgs per hectare, lagging behind countries such as China and Brazil that have yield rates of 4263 kgs/hectare and 3265 kgs/hectare respectively. The cereal yield per hectare in the country is also 2,981 kgs per hectare, lagging far behind countries such as China, Japan and the US.
The slow growth of agricultural production in India can be attributed to an inefficient rural transport system, lack of awareness about the treatment of crops, limited access to modern farming technology and the shrinking agricultural land due to urbanization. Add to that, an irregular monsoon and the fact that 63% of agricultural land is dependent on rainfall further increase the difficulties we face.
Despite these odds, there is huge potential for India to increase its agricultural productivity to meet the food requirements of its growing population.
The good news is that experience in India and other countries shows that the adoption of sustainable farming practices can increase both productivity and reduce ecological harm.
Sustainable agriculture techniques enable higher resource efficiency – they help produce greater agricultural output while using lesser land, water and energy, ensuring profitability for the farmer. These essentially include methods that, among other things, protect and enhance the crops and the soil, improve water absorption and use efficient seed treatments. While Indian farmers have traditionally followed these principles, new technology now makes them more effective.
For example, for soil enhancement, certified biodegradable mulch films are now available. A mulch film is a layer of protective material applied to soil to conserve moisture and fertility. Most mulch films used in agriculture today are made of polyethylene (PE), which has the unwanted overhead of disposal. It is a labour intensive and time-consuming process to remove the PE mulch film after usage. If not done, it affects soil quality and hence, crop yield. An independently certified biodegradable mulch film, on the other hand, is directly absorbed by the microorganisms in the soil. It conserves the soil properties, eliminates soil contamination, and saves the labor cost that comes with PE mulch films.
The other perpetual challenge for India’s farms is the availability of water. Many food crops like rice and sugarcane have a high-water requirement. In a country like India, where majority of the agricultural land is rain-fed, low rainfall years can wreak havoc for crops and cause a slew of other problems - a surge in crop prices and a reduction in access to essential food items. Again, Indian farmers have long experience in water conservation that can now be enhanced through technology.
Seeds can now be treated with enhancements that help them improve their root systems. This leads to more efficient water absorption.
In addition to soil and water management, the third big factor, better seed treatment, can also significantly improve crop health and boost productivity. These solutions include application of fungicides and insecticides that protect the seed from unwanted fungi and parasites that can damage crops or hinder growth, and increase productivity.
While sustainable agriculture through soil, water and seed management can increase crop yields, an efficient warehousing and distribution system is also necessary to ensure that the output reaches the consumers. According to a study by CIPHET, Indian government’s harvest-research body, up to 67 million tons of food get wasted every year — a quantity equivalent to that consumed by the entire state of Bihar in a year. Perishables, such as fruits and vegetables, end up rotting in store houses or during transportation due to pests, erratic weather and the lack of modern storage facilities. In fact, simply bringing down food wastage and increasing the efficiency in distribution alone can significantly help improve food security. Innovations such as special tarpaulins, that keep perishables cool during transit, and more efficient insulation solutions can reduce rotting and reduce energy usage in cold storage.
Thus, all three aspects — production, storage, and distribution — need to be optimized if India is to feed its ever-growing population.
One company working to drive increased sustainability down the entire agriculture value chain is BASF. For example, the company offers cutting edge seed treatments that protect crops from disease and provide plant health benefits such as enhanced vitality and better tolerance for stress and cold. In addition, BASF has developed a biodegradable mulch film from its ecovio® bioplastic that is certified compostable – meaning farmers can reap the benefits of better soil without risk of contamination or increased labor costs. These and more of the company’s innovations are helping farmers in India achieve higher and more sustainable yields.
Of course, products are only one part of the solution. The company also recognizes the importance of training farmers in sustainable farming practices and in the safe use of its products. To this end, BASF engaged in a widespread farmer outreach program called Samruddhi from 2007 to 2014. Their ‘Suraksha Hamesha’ (safety always) program reached over 23,000 farmers and 4,000 spray men across India in 2016 alone. In addition to training, the company also offers a ‘Sanrakshan® Kit’ to farmers that includes personal protection tools and equipment. All these efforts serve to spread awareness about the sustainable and responsible use of crop protection products – ensuring that farmers stay safe while producing good quality food.
Interested in learning more about BASF’s work in sustainable agriculture? See here.
This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of BASF and not by the Scroll editorial team.