The monsoon rains are finally arriving in central and northern India, but they are two weeks late. It started raining in Mumbai on Monday, and it should have been raining in Delhi by Friday, but it will have come too late for many people, especially farmers. For some parts of the country, it has been 200 days without rain.
Late May and early June are always brutal in northern India, as the heat builds up and
the humidity rises. This year, with the monsoon so delayed, it has been particularly bad, with the temperature hitting 48°C in Delhi last week — the hottest June day on record — and 50°C in Rajasthan. And countrywide rainfall for this year is down 37 per cent.
The heat and drought don’t just cause discomfort. After a few years of late or poor monsoons the level of the groundwater drops and wells run dry.
This year hundreds, perhaps thousands of villages have been temporarily abandoned as the residents moved to towns where there was still water, and in the state of Maharashtra alone 6,000 tanker-trucks were delivering water to other hard-hit villages.
The Indian government has just created a new Ministry of Water Power to tackle water conservation and management (better late than never), but it can’t solve the problem. Food production is falling, people are dying, and unfortunately it’s only going to get worse.
It’s impossible to say how many people have died because of this year’s late monsoon, because India generally only counts people who make it to hospital before they die (and not always even then.) But the single state of Bihar reported 184 deaths by the middle of last week.
A more plausible measure of mortality comes from Europe, where they compare overall mortality in normal times with mortality during a heatwave, and (quite reasonably) assume that the difference is mostly due to the heat deaths. In the record 2003 heatwave in Europe, when temperatures were slightly lower that they have been in northern India this month, an estimated 35,000-70,000 people died.
So how many premature deaths from heat were there really in India this month? Probably tens of thousands. And how much food production will be lost this year? Again, you cannot calculate it directly, but I can give you an informed guess.
About a dozen years ago I was interviewing Dr. Jyoti Parikh, the director of IRADe, a well-known think-tank in New Delhi. Out of the blue, she mentioned that her organisation had got the World Bank contract to forecast how much agricultural production India would lose when average global temperature reached +2°C above the pre-industrial average.
The contract was confidential at the time, but the World Bank’s chief economist had given these contracts to private think-tanks in every major country, probably on the assumption that official predictions were being kept secret in most countries so as not to frighten the children. Or should I say the citizens?
In the end, the predictions commissioned by the World Bank also remained unpublished. Indeed, they are secret even down to the present (because, after all, it is governments that pay for the World Bank.) But Parikh told me the prediction for India. At +2°C, India would lose 25 per cent of its food production. We are now at about +1.3° worldwide, so shall we say 10 per cent of food production lost now in a bad year?
Weather does fluctuate from year to year, of course, but worldwide the last four years have been the four warmest since 1880, when global records become available. Since 2004, India has experienced 11 of its 15 warmest recorded years. The frequency and duration of heat waves in India has increased and is predicted to continue increasing.
Global heating isn’t coming. It’s here.
It’s not just India, of course.
The British Meteorological Office says there is a 10 per cent chance that the average global temperature will exceed +1.5°C at least once in the next five years. (That’s the Paris climate change agreement’s “never-exceed” target.) At the current rate of greenhouse gas emissions, it’s going to take a major miracle to avoid hitting +2°C within 15 years.
At that level significant numbers of people will be dying of the heat every year, and much bigger numbers will be starving as food production fails, especially in the tropical and sub-tropical parts of the world.
But don’t feel left out if you live in the more temperate parts of the planet.
The wildfires have already started again in Canada and California, with predictions that they may be even worse than last year.
And Europe is getting ready for a heat wave, starting around Friday, that will bring temperatures above 40° to much of the continent.
Nobody gets off free.
Gwynne Dyer’s new book is “Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work).”