On climate change’s front lines in South Asia, hard lives grow even harder

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When the unseasonably heavy rains flooded the fields, and then the equally unseasonable heat shriveled the seeds, it did not only slash Ranjit Singh’s wheat harvest by nearly half.

It put him, and nearly all the other households in his village in northern India, that much further from financial stability in a country where a majority of people scratch out a living on farms.

Like many Indian farmers, Singh is saddled with enormous debt and wondering how he will repay it, as a warming world makes farming ever more precarious.

For India and other South Asian nations, home to hundreds of millions of humanity’s most vulnerable, a seemingly bottomless well of challenges, poverty, food security, health, governance, has only deepened as the region bakes on the front lines of climate change.

In Pakistan, which is grappling with an economic crisis and a political meltdown, a cholera outbreak in the southwest sent the local government scrambling, just as it was trying to quell massive forest fires.

In Bangladesh, floods that came before the monsoons stranded millions of people, complicating long-standing efforts to improve the country’s response to chronic flooding.

In Nepal, officials are trying to drain about-to-burst glacial lakes before they wash away Himalayan villages facing a new phenomenon: too much rain, too little drinking water.

In India, which is the region’s biggest grain supplier and provides hundreds of millions of its own citizens with food rations, the reduced wheat harvest has resurfaced long-standing concerns about food security and curbed the government’s ambitions to feed the world.

This region, with nearly one-quarter of the world’s population, is experiencing such climatic extremes, from untimely heavy rain and floods to scorching temperatures and extended heat waves, that they are increasingly becoming the norm, not the exception.

March this year was the hottest month in India and Pakistan in 122 years of record-keeping, while rainfall was 60-70 per cent below the norm, scientists say. The heat came earlier than usual this year, and temperatures stayed up, as high as 49 degrees Celsius, in New Delhi in May.

Malancha Chakrabarty, a researcher at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi who studies climate change and development, said India was “extremely vulnerable” to food security threats not just because of drops in production but also because much of the population could struggle to afford food as prices rise.

“We are looking at a huge population which is on the borders of being extremely poor,” Dr. Chakrabarty said. Despite significant progress in reducing extreme poverty, she said, many people are merely surviving and “wouldn’t be able to take a shock.”

Bangladesh and Nepal are reliant on India for wheat imports. Rising tides wreak as much havoc in Bangladesh as in the neighboring Indian regions of Assam and West Bengal.

When the water from heavy rains thunders down from the Himalayas, Nepali officials have to try to bring back the endangered rhinoceroses that are swept into India.

The problem with floods in Bangladesh is not new. With hundreds of rivers cutting through the nation of 170 million, rising waters displace hundreds of thousands every year.

Authorities have become better at saving lives through swift evacuations. But they are struggling to predict the timing of floods because of erratic monsoon patterns.

While disease outbreaks, flooding and harvest disasters capture headlines, activists and experts warn about the toll of more constant, routine threats.



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