Increased heat waves threaten South Asia’s struggling farmers – it’s increasingly women who are at risk

In a semicircle in the garden outside a village school in Nepal, a group of farmers share their concerns about the future. They discuss how the rain is unreliable – droughts and floods are both becoming more common. The heat is overwhelming before the rain comes.

In April, May and June, extreme heat makes it harder to work, crops wilt and die sometimes, and livestock become ill.

All the young farmers in this schoolyard are women, most in red saris. The few men present are elderly. Young men no longer live here. As the harvests more often fail, the men take out contracts for traction, handing over papers and passports to recruiters arranging travel to nearby cities or distant lands.

As climate change, and especially heat waves, worsen for South Asian farmers, women are increasingly being left to grow crops in the oppressive heat.

We are sociologists studying how climate change affects health and well-being, with a specific focus on women and children, including communities like this one in South Asia. We are also interested in how interventions by governments and aid groups can alleviate these negative impacts.

Record-breaking heat

According to the Indian Meteorological Department, 2021 was the fifth warmest year in India since 1901, and it ended the warmest 10-year period on record in the country. In 2022, the region saw record-breaking and relentless heat from March to June, with temperatures reaching 47 degrees Celsius (116 F) in India and 51 C (124 F) in Pakistan.

A globe showing extreme heat across India, with much of the country warmer than the Sahara Desert.
An intense heat wave in April 2022 sent temperatures of 8 to 15 degrees F (4.5 to 8.5 degrees C) above normal across India on the heels of the country’s warmest March in more than 120 years of record keeping. The maps show temperatures on April 27; 45 C is about 113 F.
Joshua Stevens / NASA Earth Observatory

Researchers predict that even under an optimistic scenario in which the world takes bold enough steps to keep global warming to 1.5 C (2.7 F) compared to pre-industrial times, South Asia will experience more frequent attacks of deadly heat. Some areas in the region have already experienced temperatures beyond the reach of human productivity and to dangerous areas for human survival.

These thresholds occur at wet bulb temperatures of approximately 32 C (89.6 F) and 35 C (95 F), respectively, and may be lower. Wet bulb temperatures take into account both the air temperature and relative humidity. Hot and humid conditions lead to a greater risk of heat stress, as people are less able to cool their bodies through sweat.

Women aerate grain, twisting it in the air with woven pillows.
Heat can already make labor-intensive work more difficult.
Mohammad Shajahan / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Some of the areas hardest hit were agricultural regions such as the Indian states of Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. There are crop losses affecting household food supplies as well as income. The crop damage is particularly worrying as it is wheat-producing regions that are seeing yields drop by 50% at the same time as the conflict in Ukraine raises concerns about wheat shortages for 2022. India banned wheat exports in May 2022 in an effort to control domestic prices.

Why gender matters

All of these trends are of particular concern from a gender perspective, as our research in India, Nepal and Bangladesh shows.

As heat rises, women are more likely to work in agriculture. We find this to be especially true for women with little education, and previous research suggests that impoverished women are more likely to take up agricultural work due to a lack of other opportunities. While men can migrate for work, norms about women’s responsibilities to stay at home and care for children and the elderly leave them few other opportunities to make a living.

Due to rural people’s dependence on agricultural work and the outdoor exposed nature of that work, women face extraordinary health risks due to heat exposure. Yet, compared to urban areas, rural areas have less access to air conditioning, health resources and other tools that can combat heat hazards.

Four women sit or squat while harvesting long jute sticks along a pond.
Harvesting jute, as these women did in Bangladesh in August 2021, and other crops often means being in direct sunlight all day long.
Maruf Rahman / Eyepix Group / Future Publishing via Getty Images

Farmers also experience more stress than other workers when their income is threatened by heat, as agricultural success is intrinsically linked to climate. Agricultural failures are associated with peasant suicide, post-traumatic stress and other mental health concerns.

In situations where farmers provide food for their own families, agricultural failures also mean reduced food security. Farming households with women heads have been found to be particularly vulnerable to food insecurity, as they have more limited access to land, education, financial resources, weather information and modern agricultural technology than farms run by men. Thus, climate change in rural areas is becoming an increasing gender problem.

Heat certainly remains a concern for urbanites. Yet urban economies are more diverse and less climate dependent, and urban areas are better equipped with resources to combat heat risks. Public health officials are concerned that those in rural areas do not have knowledge about heat risks and what they should do to prevent heat-related diseases.

Solutions large and small

To help South Asia’s women farmers, governments and aid groups need to understand the specific risks they face. Researchers are making progress in mapping hotspots in India where gender and agricultural conditions make female farmers more vulnerable.

Governments and aid organizations can help those groups in a variety of ways, from mitigating heat effects on people and agricultural production to providing new economic opportunities for rural women. Non-governmental organizations are already working to spread simple solutions that can help rural farmers stay cooler, such as covering roofs with sun-reflecting paint to prevent homes from getting hot.

Scientists in India have also developed a heat-resistant wheat variety. Elsewhere, scientists are working to make other crops “climate-resistant” and look at traditional practices that improve agriculture’s resilience to climate change, such as growing a more diverse mix of crops and using farm by-products such as manure as fertilizer.

A man in a dress pants and short-sleeved shirt looks in a greenhouse where rice plants grow.
A scientist in China inspects rice bred to withstand the impact of global warming.
Luis Liwanag / AFP via Getty Images

Additional efforts include crop insurance to help support farmers when heat does reduce yields. Crop insurance has low adoption rates among the poor in low- and middle-income countries. Small-scale farmers may not qualify for insurance because of the small size of their farm or because their crops are grown mainly to feed their families. Some strategies used to increase its use include extending insurance outside of cash crops to include crops eaten by families and lowering thresholds for coverage. Insurers must also be willing to recognize women as farmers. Many female farmers struggled to receive agricultural assistance due to gender bias.

More broadly, efforts to slow climate change on a global scale are most needed to help South Asia’s female farmers. As the world will increasingly exceed a warming scenario of 1.5 degrees Celsius in the near future, it becomes critical to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions to avoid the most damaging heat scenarios.

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