New Delhi: Average temperatures have risen over the past six decades and continue to do so in South Asia, making it, particularly India, where 75% of the population is dependent on agriculture, one of the regions most vulnerable to climate change.

More than 800 million people, almost half of South Asia’s population, currently live in areas that are projected to become moderate to severe hot spots by 2050 under the carbon-intensive scenario when minimal collective action is taken, according to a recent World Bank report on South Asia’s hot spots.

Low-lying coastal areas are at risk because of changes in sea-level rise and tropical storms, while mountain areas are at risk because of changes in snow, melting glaciers and natural disasters.

India’s average annual temperatures are expected to rise by 1°C to 2°C by 2050, even if preventive measures are taken as recommended by the Paris climate change agreement of 2015. If no measures are taken, the average temperatures are predicted to increase by 1.5°C to 3°C, stated the report.

Scientists have highlighted through recent research, that increasing average temperatures and changes in seasonal rainfall patterns are already having an impact on agriculture across India.

The negative impact on the yield of staple crops such as rice and wheat because of changes in temperature and rainfall has been well-documented in previous studies. New studies have also linked it to likely reduction in the production of vegetables and legumes as well, with potential impact on regions in South Asia.

According to a recent study, Effect of environmental changes on vegetables and legume yields and nutritional quality, published in the journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), environmental changes such as increasing ambient temperature, ozone concentrations, water salinity and decreasing water availability that are predicted to occur by the mid- to end-century would decrease yields of leafy vegetables by 35% and that of legumes by 9%. It could also lead to higher production costs.

Following increasing concerns over climate change, there has also been a growing number of studies modelling the effects of climate change on agriculture, water availability and the socio-economic growth in countries vastly dependent on agriculture.

A new study, titled The Impact of Climate Change Policy on the Risk of Water Stress in Southern and Eastern Asia, published in the journal, Environmental Research Letters, researchers from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), found that with no constraints on economic growth and climate change, an additional 200 million people across Asia, where 60% of the global population lives, would be vulnerable to severe water shortages by 2050. However, fighting climate change along the lines of the 2015 Paris Agreement would reduce by around 60 million the number of people facing severe water problems. Even ‘modest’ action to limit climate change could help prevent the most extreme water-shortage scenarios facing Asia by the year 2050, stated the study.

Irrigation tends to be a major driver of water consumption, leading to diminished access to water for other uses. Reducing water-stress is one of the measures to offset the negative impact on agriculture.

Among the various measures, it has been suggested by researchers of Earth Institute, Columbia University that if countries like India replace rice with lesser thirsty crops, they could significantly reduce water demand.

“If we continue to go the route of rice and wheat, with unsustainable resource use and increasing climate variability, it’s unclear how long we could keep that practice up," said Kyle Davis from Columbia University’s Earth Institute and lead author of the study ‘Alternative cereals can improve water use and nutrient supply in India’ published in Science Advances, highlighting that India would need to feed approximately 394 million more people by 2050.

Scientists have warned that climate change could lead to weather extremes that would increase vulnerability to food security. Central India continues to bear the brunt of this sluggish monsoon, where farmers are still reeling under farm distress.

“The average rainfall does not record major difference, but it is the high intensity events which are making lot of difference, leading to flooding. This is not a good news for farmers. The unpredictability of monsoon within the season is a crucial factor determining vulnerability of farmers. This is the trend being witnessed globally due to climate change," said Rakesh Kamal, Programme officer for the Climate Change at Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), Delhi.

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