India has long been regarded a ‘climate change hotspot’, and the subcontinent is at the forefront of the worst impacts in terms of human livelihood and food security. Given that 70 per cent of our arable land is estimated to be prone to drought, 12 per cent to floods and 8 per cent to cyclones, we need to pay attention.

According to the fifth assessment report of working group II, released by the inter-governmental panel on climate change (IPCC), by 2100, with the current pace of climate change and development trends, and in the absence of adaptation, millions of people in South Asia will be affected by droughts, glacier melts, cyclones and coastal flooding. Six months earlier, the working group I report established that human-induced climate change is leading to increasing atmospheric temperatures, rising sea levels and ocean warming.

Hungry in South Asia

The recurrent theme of this assessment, with regard to agriculture, is that without adaptation, climate change will exacerbate current poverty levels and trigger new poverty traps in vulnerable areas.

South Asia already has the highest number of food insecure people with 300 million undernourished — India accounts for 250 million of them. The implications are even more grim when we turn the lens on agriculture. Producing enough food sustainably to meet increasing demands and with shrinking resources such as land and water will throw up unprecedented challenges.

While extreme and erratic weather events will continue to test the agriculture sector, climate change is also progressively affecting the yield and quality of major crops. A study from the Indian Agriculture Research Institute shows that for every 1°C rise in temperature, 4-5 million tonnes of wheat will be lost in India under the current land use scenario. The impact on productivity of rice in Punjab has shown that with all other climatic variables remaining constant, temperature increases of 1°C, 2°C and 3°C would reduce the grain yield of rice by 5.4, 7.4 and 25.1 per cent, respectively.

Losses are also projected for other crops such as mustard, monsoon sorghum and fruits and vegetables. Himachal Pradesh, once known as the apple basket of India, has become too warm and cultivation is shifting north to cooler regions.

In India, most small-holder farmers subsist on rain-fed agriculture, and the IPCC report projects an increase in extreme rainfall events over central India. All scenarios point towards an increase in mean and extreme precipitation in the summer monsoon. Such variations in rainfall have huge consequences on food production and the livelihood of smallholder farmers. Changes in rainfall patterns will require better water management strategies and investments in storage infrastructure and water-use technologies.

Ocean and sea-water warming is also affecting the current abundance and distribution of freshwater and marine fish. Commercial fish varieties found in Asian waters will migrate to cooler waters as sea-water temperatures rise. This will force fishermen to go further into the sea.

Living with uncertainty

Farmers have shown that they are capable of adapting to climate variability but fluctuating yields on a long-term basis threaten their ability to earn, save, plan and invest. Farmers who live with uncertainty have less money for food, farm investments and a reduced capacity and willingness to try new practices and technologies.

Therefore, it is essential to encourage a shift to resource-saving, climate-smart agriculture practices, beginning with simple adaptation strategies such as changes in sowing dates and the use of different crop varieties. Improved crop management, as well as better risk management strategies through effective and timely early warning weather information systems and innovative crop insurance policies can reduce the vulnerability of rural communities.

Climate-smart approaches can complement one another to be ultimately beneficial to farmers through higher incomes, better resilience and sustainable practices. Adaptation is highly context-specific, and requires careful study of local conditions to be effective. Agriculture must adapt to climate change to also ensure that it does not contribute to the problem. It is estimated that food production systems accounts for up to 14 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions.

But investments in agriculture or technology alone will not prepare us for climate change. Widespread poverty, poor governance and weak institutions limit agriculture growth today. These Climate adaptation must be integrated into broader poverty alleviation policies that strengthen governance and institutions across all sectors.

The writer is regional leader of the CGIAR programme on climate change and food security, South Asia region