"There are no rains," says a young farmer from Tamil Nadu. "Even for drinking, we get water only once in 10 days." One fifth of the world’s suicides occur in India and since 1980, the nation’s suicide rates have doubled. Farmers make up an overwhelming portion of those suicides, with roughly 60,000 farmer suicides since. But why? A new study published in PNAS suggests that those statistics may be due to climate change, and in particular, high temperatures.
Vikram Patel, an Indian psychiatrist from Harvard Medical School who was not involved in the study stated 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."
The study looked at data from the last 47 years. Its results show that for temperatures above 20 °C, a 1 °C increase in a single day’s temperature causes roughly 67 suicides. An increase of 5 °C meant an additional 335 deaths. Over the past three decades, the study estimated that those numbers added up to 59,300 agricultural sector suicides. The point to highlight is that this is happening during India’s agricultural growing season, during which heat also lowers crop yields. In fact, high temperatures outside the growing season didn’t even show any significant impact on suicide rates, which implies that the farmers were only experiencing such extreme stress during the growing season.
The implications of this study are frightening, especially given that India's average temperatures are expected to rise another 3 degrees C by 2050, inevitably causing more drought and unforgiving agricultural conditions. Tamma Carleton, the author of the study, says the sector looks bleak. She writes: “I find no evidence that acclimatization, rising incomes, or other unobserved drivers of adaptation are occurring. I estimate that warming over the last 30 years accounts for 6.8% of the total upward trend.” Patel agrees, stating that "anything that will affect occupational stability is going to affect farmers' mental health.”
“Without interventions that help families adapt to a warmer climate, it’s likely we will see a rising number of lives lost to suicide as climate change worsens in India,” Carleton said.
And the sad truth is that the real suicide rate was likely higher than the reported number in the data that the study analyzed because of underreported deaths and the fact that suicide was considered a criminal offense in India until 2014.