By Gwynne Dyer
The monsoon rains are finally arriving in central and northern India, but they are two weeks late. It started raining in Mumbai on Monday, and it should be raining in Delhi by Friday, but it will come too late for many people, especially farmers.
Late May and early June are always brutal in northern India, as the heat builds up and the humidity rises. This year, with the monsoon so delayed, it has been particularly bad, with the temperature hitting 48°C (118°F) in Delhi last week – the hottest June day on record – and 50°C (123°F) in Rajasthan. And countrywide rainfall for this year is down 37%.
It’s impossible to say how many people have died because of this year’s late monsoon, because India generally only counts people who make it to hospital before they die. But the single state of Bihar reported 184 deaths by the middle of last week.
A more plausible measure of mortality comes from Europe, where they compare overall mortality in normal times with mortality during a heatwave, and (quite reasonably) assume that the difference is mostly due to the heat deaths.
In the record 2003 heatwave in Europe, when temperatures were lower that they have been in northern India this month, 35,000-70,000 people died.
So how many premature deaths from heat were there really in India this month? Probably tens of thousands. And how much food production will be lost this year? I can offer you an informed guess.
About a dozen years ago I interviewed Dr Jyoti Parikh, the director of IRADe, a think-tank in New Delhi. It was her organisation that got the World Bank contract to forecast how much agricultural production India would lose when average global temperature reached +2°C above the pre-industrial average.
The contract was confidential at the time, but the World Bank’s chief economist gave these contracts to private think-tanks in every major country, probably on the assumption that official predictions were being kept secret in most countries so as not to frighten the children.
In the end, the predictions commissioned by the World Bank also remained unpublished. Indeed, they are secret even down to the present, but Dr Parikh told me the prediction for India. At +2°C, India would lose 25% of its food production. We are now at about +1.3° worldwide, so shall we say 10% of food production lost now in a bad year?
It’s not just India, of course. The British Meteorological Office says there is a 10% chance that the average global temperature will exceed +1.5°C at least once in the next five years. (That’s the Paris Climate Change Agreement’s ‘never-exceed’ target.) At the current rate of greenhouse gas emissions, it’s going to take a major miracle to avoid hitting +2°C within 15 years.
At that level, significant numbers of people will be dying of the heat every year, and much bigger numbers will be starving as food production fails, especially in the tropical and sub-tropical parts of the world. But don’t feel left out if you live in the more temperate parts of the planet.
The wildfires have already started again in Canada and California, with predictions that they may be even worse than last year. And Europe is getting ready for a heat wave, starting around Friday, that will bring temperatures above 40° to much of the continent. Nobody gets off free.