Suicides and forced migration: The reality of climate change in South Asia
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Suicides and forced migration: The reality of climate change in South Asia

A STUDY published last week in Science Advances warned of deadly heatwaves capable of killing even healthy people within hours that will strike parts of South Asia by the turn of the century if nothing is done to cut global carbon emissions.

While the study is jarring in the imminent and extreme nature of the consequences, for rural farmers in India, Bangladesh and Pakistan, the devastating costs of climate change are already all too real.

Heatwaves are already a major risk in South Asia, with a severe episode in 2015 leading to 3,500 deaths. India recorded its hottest ever day in 2016 when the temperature in the city of Phalodi, Rajasthan, hit 51 degrees Celsius. The result is increasingly unpredictable weather patterns, making farming a dangerously risky business to be in.

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“The weather patterns have become more intense,” Climate Action Network South Asia (Cansa) director Sanjay Vashist told Asian Correspondent.

“Heatwaves are more intense now, maybe for a shorter period, but more intense compared to earlier times when we did experience heatwaves, but they were manageable and within tolerable limits.”

“Similarly, the rainfall is not uniformly distributed. Immediately after heatwaves, when a monsoon arrives there’s a flood situation…As a result, in the rural areas, the top soil – considered the most fertile – erodes, making it difficult for farmers and people reliant on farm based livelihoods.”

The social impact of these increasingly unreliable weather patterns are highlighted in a recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, that detailed the causal link between temperature rise and suicide rates of rural farmers in India.

The report suggests as climate change brings hotter temperatures that damage crops and exacerbate drought, the death toll from suicide will increase. For every one degree Celsius of warming above 20 degrees during the growing season in India, there are 67 more suicides on average, the study found.

The message is that “farming is an inherently risky occupation, with annual incomes often held hostage to the weather, and it’s getting riskier in the era of climate change,” Vikram Patel, an Indian psychiatrist and mental health expert with Harvard Medical School, told Time magazine.

The unreliability of crop yields is also forcing people to flee the affected areas in search of income and a sustainable livelihood. This prompts significant social problems in the areas to which they are migrating.

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“There has been an increase in both short-term and long-term migration that is causing long-term damage,” Vashist explains. “When people’s livelihoods are finished forever and they do not have any ability to support themselves, they have to migrate as there’s no way to earn money, no way to sustain life.”

“Unprecedented weather patterns are causing impacts which are consolidating the population in one corner of the country and putting a burden on the infrastructure, on the economy as well as triggering social tensions between people,” he said.

There are a variety of problems connected with this mass movement of people into urban areas. Not only does it place added strain on the infrastructure of already struggling cities, but the migrants are often subject to exploitation and discrimination.


For rural farmers in India, Bangladesh and Pakistan, the devastating costs of climate change are already all too real. Source: Shutterstock

“There’s no policy that gives them any protection in terms of how much they should be paid and protection in terms of what kind of capacity should be provided by the employer. Any skilled person in their native state becomes an unskilled person when they migrate to another,” Vashist said.

In a number of regions, the issue of rural migrants has become a political agenda as politicians demonise the group in order to mobilise support. As a result, violent persecution has been on the rise.

“It is a political issue, for politicians to mobilise people with nationalised feelings. In Maharashtra, one of the political parties, Shiv Sena, is actually after these migrants – they have been opposing migrants because they want to mobilise the workers.

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“In the areas they migrate to, local people have started discriminating against them as they hold the view, ‘you are all coming here, sharing our benefits with us and we don’t want you here, go back to your place’. So people in distress are also being isolated by the people living in that area,” Vashist said.

India has been slow to recognise the social impacts of climate migration and as a result, lack long-term policies to help the people affected by the change in weather.


Stranded villagers wave to a helicopter as they wait to get rescued in Tezpur, India. Source: AP

A report from Cansa assessing climate-induced migration and policy responses found climate change is still largely invisible in the migration discourse in South Asia. It also identified a significant need for clear definitions of climate migration and displacement, from which national governments must start to gather and analyse data on the role of climate change in migration then develop appropriate policies accordingly.

“The government is lacking long-term plans as well as any plan to empower those affected or impacted by climate change,” Vashist said.

“First, they must provide them interim relief with a safety net following bad harvests, and then empower them with alternative livelihoods or diversification of their farm land.”

But Vashist acknowledges tackling the social issues surrounding climate migration will not be easy, especially in a region fraught with cross-border tension.

“It’s a politically sensitive topic in many countries. We (at Cansa) recognise the cross-border issues among South Asian countries, so we have to deal with it in a manner in which we’re not challenging any country’s security. We are focusing more on people security, ultimately it’s about people, and so countries need to take into consideration the lives that are being affected.”

Vashist comes with a stark warning to governments currently refusing to tackle the problems head on.

“We need to bypass political sensitivities to find a solution. It is now inevitable migration will continue to get worse. If nothing is done, the situation will be beyond their control very soon.”