- Some women agricultural labourers in Maharashtra’s Kolhapur and Sangli districts are reporting disruptions to their physical and mental wellbeing as they deal with the aftereffects of floods in 2019 and 2021 and uncertainty of climate.
- Healthcare systems need to take an integrated and cohesive view of public health, recommend experts.
- There is a lack of health data that connects climate change to its impact on health. Early warning systems in healthcare could save lives.
“How will we survive?
What can we do now?
What will we eat?”
Hirabai Hugge, 65, spent a majority of her time over six months, thinking about these questions. In her constant quest for answers, the fluctuating local climatic pattern and associated uncertainty posed as barriers.
When floods hit Kolhapur in August 2019, Hugge, an agricultural labourer, says it took over 45 days for the fields to drain completely. After that, when work just about restarted, a few heavy rainfall showers further destroyed the fields.
The same story, she says, repeated two years later, post the July 2021 floods. “In 2021, after these heavy showers, there was a long dry period which affected crops like soybean and jowar (sorghum),” she recollects.
To clear her debt, she thought of working an extra shift of eight hours. But these variations in rainfall and their disruption of agricultural work, meant she couldn’t get enough double shifts. Despite her daughter-in-law pitching in, the Hugge family couldn’t earn enough to put food on the table because of the surmounting debt, deteriorating health, and lesser workdays.
To add on the troubles, for three months after both the floods, her cattle stopped milking, taking away her last income source.
Hugge’s search for solutions has left her consistently stressed and anxious, leading to high blood pressure. Her health has been severely declining since the 2019 floods, which has forced her to rely on medicines. In late 2020, she was diagnosed with hypertension. Now, for the past 15 months, every evening after work, she has taken an anti-inflammatory pain relieving medicine. “If I don’t take it, I won’t be able to get up the next day for work.”
In flood-affected Shirdhon village in Maharashtra’s Kolhapur district, where Hugge lives, similar stories of deteriorating health are gradually unfolding.
While conclusive research is limited, anecdotal information and expert observations indicate links between the stress associated with climate variations that impact agriculture and the health of those that work in the sector.
Community Health Officer, Sachin Salave from Kolhapur’s Bhuye Primary Health Centre, confirms this. “There’s a rapid increase in hypertension and diabetes patients in the last two years.” Salave, who treats flood victims from roughly 15 villages, says, that the major cause for this is economic losses fuelled by changes in local climate, fear of another flood, and devastation caused by COVID-19.
In April this year, after working in the scorching heat with the temperature crossing 40 degrees Celsius, Hugge was fatigued and suffered constant spells of dizziness, forcing her to rest for a week – a time off that she could probably not afford.
Hugge says, she averaged 25 days of work every month before the August 2019 floods. “Now, even finding 15 days of work is difficult.”
Kiran Pawar, 35, a farmer from the nearby Bahiravadi region of Kurundvad town in Kolhapur, lost his entire sugarcane produce of 300,000 kilograms (300 tonnes) twice in the 2019 and 2021 floods. He explains why agricultural labourers aren’t getting enough work. “From 2019, the vatavaran (climate) has changed completely. Suddenly in peak summers it starts raining, followed by a long drought and last year we witnessed cold which has never been seen here before.”
These rapid changes affect farm productivity, impacting income and forcing farmers to find alternatives to hiring agricultural labourers that they can no longer afford.
For Pawar, these changes have affected the crop yield and he has been reporting reduced produce since the 2019 floods, which in turn has reduced his income substantially. “Floods take away at least four months of our peak season; now these climatic changes are further affecting the crops.” Since he can’t afford to hire agricultural labourers, he has started deploying more weedicides and herbicides.
Even as flood-affected farmers like Pawar are helpless, the climate disasters are further going to intensify, warns Roxy Koll, a climate scientist at the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology (IITM), Pune and a contributor to the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report. “If we look at the trends in Maharashtra, we have fewer days with rainfall, but at the same time, the number of extreme events causing floods is increasing. So it’s long dry spells intermittent with short spells of heavy rainfall which is not good for agriculture,” he explains.
As per government figures, 50.40 lakh (5.04 million) hectares of fields were affected by rains, floods, and landslides in 2021. Of this affected area, Maharashtra accounted for about 9% or 4.55 lakh (0.45 million) hectares that was impacted during heavy rains and floods from July to November 2021.
Salave says he has seen a rapid change in people’s lifestyles in the region, as they cannot afford nutritious food because of the rising costs and dented income. The National Family Health Survey (NFHS) points to similar trends Salave mentioned. For example, the National Family Health Survey 2019-2020 report, measuring hypertension among adults, found that 31 percent of women in the Kolhapur district had elevated blood pressure. This is significantly higher than the 2015-16 survey where 13.2 percent of the women surveyed had blood pressure from slightly above normal to very high levels. In 2015-2016, 9.8 percent of women were diagnosed with high or very high blood sugar levels, which increased to 14.2 by 2019-2020.
Salave explains, “One of the major reasons for the rising cases in hypertension is the anxiety caused by two floods which have spiralled into a cycle of debt for many agricultural labourers.” Failure to clear the debt in time means rising interest amount which adds more to the stress. “Several of my patients talked about reduced opportunities for farm work because of the sudden rainfall. All of these events come together and cause tremendous anxiety, contributing to the increase in hypertension cases.”