India experienced its hottest March this year since the Indian Meteorological Department started recording weather data in 1901. April was no better: the heatwave continued and 14 weather stations breached their previously registered highest temperature records.

The heatwave made global headlines since it scorched the wheat crop at a time when the Russia-Ukraine war had made more countries dependent on wheat supplies from India. International wheat prices surged 6% after India banned wheat exports.

But the crisis is no anomaly. Experts say it is an indication of what is to come as the world continues to warm. With food production becoming increasingly vulnerable to extreme weather events, there is an urgent need to direct more funds to make agriculture in countries like India climate resilient.

A searing heatwave

This year, scorching temperatures swept across India just as crops planted in the winter were ripening for harvest. The agriculture ministry estimates that around 20% of the wheat crop was damaged.

But it wasn’t just wheat that was affected. In Maharashtra, horticulture crops such as guava and mango wilted, said Pushkaraj Tayde, secretary of the Centre for Agriculture and Rural Development, a non-profit organisation based in Jalna. “Chilli production has also gone down and some sugarcane fields caught fire during the last week of April because of the heatwave,” he said.

Although the heatwave this year has been particularly strong and uncommon – heatwaves are usually seen in May and June – these spells of increased and sometimes record-breaking temperatures are becoming the norm.

Increasing frequency

Data compiled by the India Meteorological Department shows that since 1901, 12 of the 15 warmest years were recorded during the past decade-and-a-half with 2016 being the warmest.

Along with the rise in temperature levels, heatwaves are increasing as well. A 2020 study, which analysed the decadal pattern of heatwaves between 1951 and 2016, found an increase in the frequency as well as the affected geographical area.

Between 1951 and 1970, the country recorded an average of two to three heatwave events. But after the 1980s, the average number of heatwave events rose sharply and the area affected increased, the study found.

For instance, during the 2001-2010 decade, regions such as Rayalaseema in Andhra Pradesh and parts of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu witnessed heatwaves. In previous decades, these areas had recorded none or few heatwave events.

An analysis of the 2022 heatwave found that such an extreme event that usually takes place once in 100 years has become 30 times more probable due to the effects of climate change.

The analysis was published in the form of a study by the World Weather Attribution initiative, a collaboration of climate scientists from India, the United Kingdom, the United States, Switzerland and Netherlands.

“At the global mean temperature scenario of +2C [more than 2 degrees Celsius] such a heatwave would become an additional factor of 2-20 more likely and 0.5-1.5C [degrees Celsius] hotter compared to 2022,” says the study.

Weather patterns, human activities

This year’s heatwave is the result of a two-fold process. The first is global weather patterns. Between December and April, rains over parts of India and Pakistan are caused by the Western Disturbance.

The Western Disturbance is a weather system of extra-tropical storms originating in the Mediterranean – hence, “Western” and “extra-tropical”, that is, outside the tropics – brought over to India by the subtropical westerly jet stream wind.

When these jet stream winds are weak, the Western Disturbance is weak, meaning that rains between December and April will either be weak, or mostly absent as was the case this year – 71% below normal in March.

The other climatic factor is La Niña in the Pacific. La Niña, or Little Girl, conditions are part of the El Niño-Southern Oscillation cycle – an interplay between Trade Winds that blow east to west close to the equator, and the surface ocean temperature of the Pacific – which affects global weather systems.

Studies have found La Niña conditions to cause cloudlessness and high temperatures over India and Pakistan. Climate change is affecting the El Niño-Southern Oscillation cycle.

A road damaged by flood waters after heavy rains in Assam’s Nagaon district, on May 19. Credit: Reuters

Krishna AchutaRao, of the Centre for Atmospheric Sciences at the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi, and a co-author of the World Weather Attribution study, said their analysis refers to a few studies that point to the impact of climate change on Western Disturbances.

“Basically, a reduction is expected. Climate change influence on El Niño/La Niña is a huge area of research and the literature seems to indicate more severe events [both El Niño and La Niña] in the future,” said AchutaRao.

The other reason behind the extreme heatwaves is not based on weather systems, rather, it reflects human activity at a regional level.

Studies have found two forces with competing influences on heat extremes: aerosol air pollutants – fine particles released from fossil fuel combustion which hang in the air – and irrigation. While irrigation reduces warming, some aerosol pollutants, such as black carbon and dust, increase it.

In India, given the low levels of pre-monsoon irrigation activity and an abundance of black carbon and dust, another 2018 study concluded that aerosols and irrigation would have a limited effect: “…Evidence suggests that – for the specific case of a March-April heatwave affecting north-west India and Pakistan – the importance of short-lived aerosols or an increase in irrigation in suppressing the warming effect of greenhouse gases might be smaller than previously thought.”

Funding challenges

Heatwaves and extreme weather events, then, are here to stay and likely to increase in frequency and severity. While studies and research establish a clear link between weather extremes and climate change, efforts towards building climate resilience have not taken off.

During the 2015 Paris conference of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, it was decided that the developed world will contribute towards a Green Climate Fund of $100 billion by 2020. The funds would be used to tackle issues such as making agriculture climate proof.

But this has not happened yet, says a 2021 report on Climate Fund by Climate Policy Initiative, a global analysis and advisory organisation. The target has been shifted to 2023.

“Finance for adaptation increased by 53% reaching $46 billion in 2019/2020 compared to $30 billion in 2017/2018. Despite this positive trend, total adaptation finance remains far below the scale necessary to respond to existing and future climate change,” the report says.

A 2020 report by the United Nation’s International Fund for Agricultural Development and Climate Policy Initiative found that only 1.7% of climate finance goes to small-scale farmers in developing countries.

According to the report, small-scale farmers produce 50% of the world’s food calories but bear the brunt of extreme weather events such as increased incidences of droughts and flooding, which destroy crops and livestock.

“[Such incidents]…make it difficult for them to continue to feed their communities and earn a living,” states the report. At least 80% of farmers in India can be categorised as small-scale.

Another emerging trend is that most climate funding is being funnelled into the renewable energy sector. “Solar PV [photovoltaic, or solar cells that convert sunlight into electricity] and onshore wind continued to be the main recipient of renewable energy finance, attracting over 91% of all mitigation investment,” says the report on funding by Climate Policy Initiative.

Indian realities

In India, too, few sectors have cornered most funding, according to a 2020 report by Climate Policy Initiative.

Between 2016 and 2018, public climate finance disbursed by either the central government ministries or state departments was largely directed towards the power generation sector – 70% – followed by energy efficiency and power transmission (20%), and sustainable transportation (10%), said the report.

One of the 150 electric buses during a flag-off ceremony in New Delhi on May 24. Credit: PTI.

Worse, amid concerns over how food production is being affected, the government slashed funds set aside for building climate resilience in the agriculture sector.

In 2016-’17, the Union Budget had set aside Rs 103 crore for the agriculture ministry under the head Climate Resilient Agriculture Initiative, but this was reduced to Rs 55 crore in 2021-’22.

Avantika Goswami, Programme Manager, Climate Change, at the Delhi based non-profit Centre for Science and Environment, said a minuscule portion of climate finance is diverted towards the agricultural sector.

She underlined that there needs to be widespread awareness about how climate change is causing crises in the agriculture sector, and that funding benefits small farmers and their livelihoods.

“We need to ensure that climate finance is directed, not simply to large agribusinesses and agri-tech corporates, but towards public research in climate-resilient seed varieties, and in protecting smallholder farmer livelihoods,” said Goswami.

She also said that efforts to shield small farmers from climate change must include funding for early warning systems for extreme weather events, and providing assurance of incomes after such incidents.

The wheat crisis has shown that threat of extreme weather events due to climate change is not just limited to the producer countries, but affects the whole world. This should be a lesson.