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IIt was his buffaloes that first worried him. As temperatures in the small village of Baras, in the heart of India’s Punjab state, began to climb to unusually hot levels in April, farmer Hardeep Singh Uppal noticed that his two buffaloes, essential to the livelihood of his family, became feverish and ill.

A few weeks later, the buffaloes now appear to be fine, quietly wagging their tails as an icy breeze blows from an air conditioning unit, a luxury that once stood in Uppal’s parents’ home but has now been ensconced in an otherwise dilapidated barn, running all day at great expense. “The vet told me I had to keep them cool during this heat wave or they would die, so that’s the only way,” Uppal said.

Yet Uppal’s problems, which stem from the heatwave that has gripped India since March, the hottest month on record, only got worse from there. As he and other farmers in northern India began harvesting their wheat in mid-April, in temperatures regularly above 40C, they were faced with damaged and shriveled kernels. Unusual winter rains and then a scorching summer heat wave that had arrived two months earlier – both markers of climate change – had stunted crop growth and destroyed his grain and therefore his livelihood.

“My wheat harvest this year was 50% lower than expected, my harvest shrunk due to this heat. It has never been so hot in March before,” said Uppal, who owns 1.5 hectares of land. It hasn’t rained in Baras since January; the usual downpours that traditionally come in April and May, after the wheat harvest and before the rice is planted, simply never came.

Indian wheat farmers estimate the cost of 40°C heat that evokes the “deserts of Rajasthan” |  India
Farmer Hardeep Singh Uppal. Photography: Hannah Ellis-Petersen/The Guardian

Wheat crop losses, which have occurred across India, have left farmers deep in debt, having loaned money to a middleman to pay for seeds and fertilizers, but all left with at least 50% less grain to sell. The profits from the harvest were nowhere near enough to cover the money owed, and now the interest on those debts is mounting.

“All the farmers are very stressed, we have bad debts. If this hot weather continues, more and more farmers will be forced to sell their land,” Uppal said.

These farmers, who are on the front lines of the climate emergency, say they have few options to adapt their lifestyle even as the heat worsens. They still burn their wheat stubble which contributes to India’s terrible air pollution as they cannot afford any other method of clearing the field. They are still planting paddy rice – a crop heavily dependent on water – despite warnings that the Punjab water table is plunging rapidly, as it is the only crop they can be sure of selling at a good price.

Surjeet Singh, 65, said he had never seen such high temperatures in all his decades of farming and had lost half his wheat crop on his 16 hectares of land. “I lost 700,000 rupees (£7,200) and if it happens again next season I don’t know what I will do,” he said. “It’s hot everywhere so I’m worried about the crops and the groundwater which is running out. Soon this land will become as arid as the deserts of Rajasthan.

But it is not just in rural Punjab that the effects of India’s unprecedented heatwave have been felt. Last weekend, as temperatures in parts of India’s capital Delhi hit a record high of 49C, the Indian government announced it was banning all wheat exports, due to the heatwave which was decimating India’s expected harvest. The government said it was a decision taken to “manage the country’s overall food security”.

The decision made waves around the world and dealt a blow to the international community, which was counting on Indian wheat exports to help fill a huge supply gap left as a result of the war in Ukraine. Previously, Russia and Ukraine together accounted for almost a third of world wheat exports.

India is the second largest wheat producer in the world and for the 2022-23 crop year it is expected to be one of the top 10 wheat exporters and expected to sell 10 million tonnes overseas. In April, Minister Piyush Goyal assured that “our farmers have ensured that not only India, but the whole world is taken care of” and the day before the ban was announced, the government announced that he would send emissaries to nine different countries. “to explore opportunities to boost wheat exports”.

But the low yield of wheat had meant that the government’s own supplies had fallen to their lowest level in 13 years, and the shortage – exacerbated by the alleged hoarding of wheat by private traders – drove up the prices of wheat and flour by 40% in recent weeks. Fearing food shortages, the government did an about face.

The day after India’s export ban was announced, world wheat prices jumped a record 6%. German Agriculture Minister Cem Özdemir warned that “if everyone starts imposing export restrictions or closing markets, it will make the crisis worse.” The United States said it hoped “India would reconsider” its decision to ban wheat exports, which would “further exacerbate the current global food shortage”. At the upcoming G7 summit in June, countries are expected to pressure India to lift the ban.

But he nonetheless brought home the instability of global food supplies in the face of a rapidly warming planet. A study published this week found that extreme events like the one currently facing northern India are now 100 times more likely and could occur every three years, rather than every three centuries.

“In a warming world, I would expect a place like India to experience these types of events as the norm rather than an extreme,” said Luke Parsons, climate researcher at the Nicholas Duke University School of the Environment.

As the farmers in Baras testified, the problem was not only to fry the crops in the heat, but to make agricultural work increasingly difficult, because the hours of the day when it was possible to work outside were rapidly decreasing. “In a place like India, for every degree of global warming, you get about a degree and a half increase in human exposure to heat,” Parsons said.

“As we warm the globe, not only are midday temperatures rising, but so is heat exposure in the early morning and evening, times when outdoor workers traditionally perform more labor intensive tasks. Therefore, we will see more people exposed to extreme and dangerous working conditions.

Jaspal Singh Virk, 48, who owns 14 hectares, was among those who suffered health problems from the scorching sun while harvesting his wheat. “It was terrible to be outside in the heat like this for 15 days straight, but we farmers have no choice during harvest,” Kirk said.

He is counting on the rain for his rice crop to survive for the next season, otherwise he risks destitution. “It’s all in God’s hands now,” he said.

Vandana K contributed reporting

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