Climate change is leading to a rise in suicides

Difficult climate conditions are leading to a rise in the number of suicides among farmers. A study fromBerkeley University covering a period of 30 years found that there were nearly 60,000 suicides attributed to rising temperatures – in India alone. Frederic Spohr reports from Bangkok.

A new study from Berkeley University has established a clear link between suicide rate and climate change. (Image credit: UC Berkeley)

The mighty Kaveri River in South India is a lifeline for millions of Indians. But it is all but a trickle in most places right now, and the ongoing drought has cost some 300 people their lives so far.

Despair in the villages

For now, the drought has mainly affected farmers in the southern state of Tamil Nadu. But in recent years, other parts of India have increasingly been hit by severe droughts and heavy storms.

More than 30 million farmers are asking the state to pay their debts after suffering crop failures due to poor weather. Despair is rampant in many villages.

Time and again, farmers are turning to the street to protest and draw attention to the enormous number of suicides in areas: in the state of Maharastra alone, more than 9,500 farmers took their lives between 2013 and 2016.

In all of India, more than 300,000 farmers and day labourers have killed themselves since 1995, according to the World Health Organization – many by drinking poisonous pesticides.

New study reveals link

Until now the extent to which climate change, crop failure and suicide are connected has been controversial.

But a new study from Berkeley University now shows an alarming link: global warming has lead to nearly 60,000 suicides in India in the past 30 years, says agricultural economist Tamma Carleton.

Given that suicides are vastly unreported, the impact could be much higher.

According to the study, warming a single day by 1 degree Celsius during the growing season leads to roughly 65 suicides, whenever the day’s temperature is above 20 degrees Celsius.

The clear link between higher suicide rates and increased temperatures, says Carleton, as high temperatures or low rainfall during the off-season have no effect on suicide rates.

Increased warming expected

As climate change accelerates, the already critical situation in rural regions across the subcontinent could worsen even more as climate researchers believe it is possible that India could be an average of 3 degrees Celsius warmer by 2050.

And it would seem that many Indian farmers have not succeeded in adapting to the previous, far less severe changes to the climate.

A large proportion of Indian farmers work with basic means, and it is estimated that some 60 per cent of the fields on the sub-continent cannot be systematically irrigated, making Indian farmers highly dependant on precipitation.

“In this risky environment where families are very poor, any additional shock can lead to extreme economic destitution, and some individuals may cope with that hardship by committing suicide,” said Carleton.

Assistance programmes largely unknown

The suffering among the rural population in India is increasingly turning into a political tinderbox. Around half of India’s 1.3 billion people work in agriculture.

Just in June this year there were severe riots in the state of Madya Pradesh, with five farmers shot. Farmers in seven states are now insisting that they no longer have to pay their debts.

To prevent further crises, India’s government last year offered some sort of an insurance against lost crops, putting aside around $1.3 billion in the national budget.

But the programme hasn’t had the desired effect. According to a government survey, more than half of the country’s farmers never even heard about the offer.

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