India braces for another heatwave amid concerns over wheat exports

Second consecutive year of heatwaves could hit country’s agricultural production and energy supplies hard

Stuti Mishra
Wednesday 01 March 2023 16:27 GMT
A woman uses her bag to protect herself from the sun in New Delhi on Wednesday
A woman uses her bag to protect herself from the sun in New Delhi on Wednesday (REUTERS)

India is set to face yet another heatwave this year after record-breaking temperatures in 2022, raising concerns not just about the country’s preparedness to tackle extreme weather but also the global implications for wheat crops and energy supplies.

India’s weather office raised an alert on Tuesday warning that the country would likely experience heatwaves between March and May this year after recording its hottest February since records began in 1901.

A similar alert was sounded in 2022 sounded for a heatwave that struck with unprecedented temperatures in March, but this year it the alarm has been raised considerably earlier.

The alert comes amid a new study warning that there is a higher possibility of an El Nino phenomenon taking place this year, which could increase global temperatures even beyond what was witnessed in the last few years.

The world has been inching closer to the 1.5C heating threshold and India is one of the hottest places on Earth. Recent studies caution that the country could be one of the first ones to see unsurvivable temperatures.

While India is highly vulnerable to climate crisis-induced extreme weather events, back-to-back heatwaves have raised concerns about its ability to cope.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), in its recent report published in 2022, predicted heatwaves will become more frequent and more severe in India in the coming years.

“Due to climate change, the probability of heatwaves in India is expected to increase in the upcoming seasons. IPCC reports and climate scientists have warned about the impact of global warming on the frequency and intensity of heatwaves in the country,” says Anjal Prakash, an IPCC author.

The frequency of heatwaves has increased by 25 per cent over the past few decades, with the trend expected to continue, according to a report by the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology (IITM).

The report also suggests the intensity and duration of heatwaves are likely to increase.

“Hot weather is here to stay and we should start considering it as a new normal,” says Mahesh Palawat, a meteorologist for private weather agency Skymet.

“It has been noticed that rains have declined during March in the last many years. Climate models are indicating similar conditions this year too.”

While India reeled from the cascading impact of last year’s record temperatures that impacted its crops and energy production, a heatwave for the second straight year could further dent the production of wheat and several key crops, complicating the government’s efforts to bring down food inflation.

India was ready for a rebound in crop production this year as the government in February said it expected wheat produce from this year’s harvest to be 112.2 million tonnes, 2.4 per cent higher than the 2021 harvest record of 109.6 million tonnes.

India’s wheat output fell to 106.84 million tonnes in 2022. But new data from the federal agriculture ministry estimates the total area planted through to 20 January was a record 69.6 million hectares (mha), compared to 67.7mha at the same time in 2022, and around 10 per cent above the 10-year average. Wheat made up almost half of this area.

However, looming fears of a new heatwave have caused concerns over crop production. Experts say warmer temperatures during the crucial month of March for winter-sown crops could lead to a yield loss. India only grows one wheat crop a year, with planting in October and November and harvesting from March.

Last year’s heatwave led to a wheat production decline and the government moved to ban wheat exports, further denting global supply at a time when it was already suffering due to the war in Ukraine.

The Indian government was already reported to be considering extending the ban on wheat exports in early February even before the country started warming up, as it seeks to replenish state reserves and bring down domestic prices. But as the world’s second-largest producer, any challenges India faces could lead to a ripple effect on the global wheat market.

Higher temperatures could also increase power consumption beyond supplies during the summer season, potentially worsening the energy crisis, as India and China race to acquire more coal despite ambitious plans to increase their share of green energy.

India aims to get half of its electricity from renewables by 2030 but increasing electricity demands during peak summer, which is getting extended due to longer heatwaves, leaves India scrambling for more coal.

India, the world’s second-largest importer of thermal coal, has seen a resurgence in coal imports, according to a report by Argus, which have helped stabilise prices for low-grade Indonesian coal.

In a hit for global plans for reducing fossil fuels, China, the largest coal consumer, approved permits for 106GW of new coal-fired generation capacity in 2022, the most since 2015, according to a new report from the Center for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA) and Global Energy Monitor (GEM).

As global temperatures are set to rise further, there is a 93 per cent likelihood of at least one year until 2026 being the warmest on record, according to a study last year by the UK’s Met Office, bringing more worries for countries like India where temperatures already push the limits of human endurance.

Global temperatures increased again in 2022
Global temperatures increased again in 2022 (WMO)

While the global implications of India’s heatwaves are severe, at home there’s little change since last year to cope with the rising challenge which could have devastating effects on human health, ecosystems, agriculture, water, energy supplies and key economic sectors.

Half of India’s workforce works outdoors in scorching heat, but the country’s infrastructure is not built to provide shelters and relief in accordance with the rising temperatures.

Experts have been raising alarms to frame new policies aimed at providing relief to workers during peak hours by altering work hours and providing water and shelter sources outdoors.

Last year, the Indian government issued warnings on the unusually high temperatures in some areas and directed the implementation of heat action plans (HAPs).

However, experts say none of these plans are ready yet, with most states lacking local-level assessments.

“India is already working with 23 heatwave prone states to develop and implement HAPs across the country. However, we need to focus more on the groundwork, wherein this protection could also reach to those who do not have access to cooling measures,” says Kartigi Negi of Climate Trends Delhi, a consultancy firm focused on the climate.

“There should also be location-specific studies as well as further research in lower-income countries,” she says, adding that one plan may not be fit for all regions.

Political conversation and election campaign chatter over the climate and its impact in the country is exceedingly rare.

However, weather events faced year round by India are becoming more and more extreme with climate change. Last year, a study by World Weather Attribution found the climate crisis has made heatwaves 30 times more likely in India and Pakistan.

While it was still expected to be a rare event, the consecutive heatwaves come as another reminder of how fast the weather patterns are changing. How well India responds to this impending threat will determine not only its own fate but also the world’s.

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