2017-08-24 |

Study links rising farmer suicides in India to climate change

Indian Farmer in India (Photo: CC0)

Climate change may have contributed to the suicides of nearly 60,000 Indian farmers and farm workers over the past three decades, new research suggests. According to a study from the University of California, Berkeley, crop failures caused by drought and low rainfall during India’s agricultural growing season are pushing farmers into poverty and triggering suicides. The study, published in the August issue of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), found that an increase of just 1 degree Celsius during the growing season lead to roughly 70 suicides across the country whenever that day’s temperature was above 20 degrees. An increase of 5 degrees had five times that effect. “The tragedy is unfolding today. This is not a problem for future generations. This is our problem, right now,” said researcher Tamma Carleton. But she projects that today’s suicide rate will rise further as temperatures continue to warm.

According to the UC Berkeley press release announcing the study more than half of India’s working population is employed in rain-dependent agriculture, long known to be sensitive to climate fluctuations such as unpredictable monsoon rains, scorching heat waves, and drought. Heat waves, for example, drive crop losses, which can cause ripple effects throughout the Indian economy as poor harvests increase food prices, shrink agricultural jobs and draw on household savings, Carleton says. During these times, it appears that a staggering number of people, often male heads of household, turn to suicide. “Without interventions that help families adapt to a warmer climate, it’s likely we will see a rising number of lives lost to suicide as climate change worsens in India,” she adds.

For the study, Carleton paired the numbers for India’s reported suicides in each of its 32 states between 1967 and 2013, using a dataset prepared by the Indian National Crime Records Bureau, along with statistics on India’s crop yields, and high-resolution climate data. High temperatures and low rainfall during the off-season, when few crops are grown, did not have the same effect on suicide rates, indicating that the impact on agriculture in the main growing season is indeed the critical link. The study could help explain India’s evolving suicide epidemic, where suicide rates have nearly doubled since 1980, claiming more than 130,000 lives each year. The study indicates that 6.8% of the total upward trend can be attributed to warming that has been linked to human activity. Carleton estimates that warming temperature trends over the last 30 years have already been responsible for over 59,000 suicides throughout India. She argues that these estimates could even be too low since deaths in general are underreported in India and because until 2014, national law held that attempted suicide was a criminal offense, further discouraging reporting.

Carleton hopes her work will help people better understand the human cost of climate change, as well as inform suicide prevention policy in India and other developing countries. “It was both shocking and heartbreaking to see that thousands of people face such bleak conditions that they are driven to harm themselves,” she said. “But learning that the desperation is economic means that we can do something about this. The right policies could save thousands.” The study indicates that protecting farmers and farm workers from major economic shortfalls during these events, through policies like crop insurance or improvements in rural credit markets, may help to rein in a rising suicide rate. The Indian government has already established a $1.3 billion crop insurance plan aimed at reducing the suicide rate but it is still unknown if that will be sufficient or effective. (ab)


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