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Climate change brews multi-challenges for tea

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Guwahati: In the backdrop of the just-concluded COP21 talks in Paris, as nations across the world discussed ways to tackle the monster called climate change, back home, India’s favourite beverage, tea, is facing some major challenges as a result of it – from low yield to new pests.

Scientists at Assam’s Tocklai Tea Research Institute (TRI) say that erratic rainfall over the years is a major concern for the tea industry. The first flush – the early leaves which are delicate and have a gentle aroma – which is harvested mid-March, has been affected by the changing rain patterns.

R N Bhagat, one of the scientists at Tocklai, said: “In the last 100 years in Assam, we have lost around 22.1 cm of rainfall. With this decrease and a shift in rainfall distribution, the tea industry is losing the first flush that comes in March-April. Spraying of fertilizers is timed with the rainfall pattern, but with no rain, the fertilizers have no impact.”

Then again, with no rain, the relative humidity in March-April is also lowering, further affecting the first flush. “It used to be 80 percent, but in 2015 it was recorded around 52-54 percent,” Bhagat told IANS.

In a discussion organised by the Centre for Environment Education and The Third Pole under the Indian Himalayas Climate Adaptation Programme (IHCAP), Bhagat said that tea is a self-adapting plant and has been sustaining rising temperatures – the summer saw more than 35 degrees Celsius while tea grows ideally between 13-30 degrees C.

Even then, it cannot tackle all changes – like a spurt in new pests as a result of changing weather patterns.

N. Muraleedharan, director of Tocklai, said: “White flies is a new species of pest which has been reported mostly from the Assam belt. It is minute and travels in hoards. There has also been an increase in pests like thrips, tea mosquitoes, scale insects and green hoppers, as a result of which the intensity of damage on tea is more.”

“As a result of the change in weather patterns, there is a decrease in leaf quality too,” he went on to say.

What all of this translates into is production being affected. And to increase production, the tea managements generally use more chemicals, leading to more biotic stress on the plant. According to the scientists, there are two kinds of stress – abiotic (drought, flood) and biotic (pests and the like caused by flood and drought).

“This also means that the total production cost of the tea estates is increasing. Earlier Rs.4,000-5,000 was used for pesticides, per hectare. Now it has gone up to Rs.20,000-25,000. Irrigation costs have also increased,” Bhagat said.

With such multi-pronged challenges being thrown at tea by changing environmental conditions, scientists are now working on developing clones that would have the best chances of survival in the future.

“We have simulated future scenarios of climatic conditions, like higher carbon dioxide, and are looking at how tea plants behave. In one or one and a half years’ time, we should be able to announce future clones to the industry,” Bhagat said.

Scientists also developed a seed-stock that is drought resistant and released it in September on an experimental basis, which got good results.

The changing climatic conditions and more pests have also steered many gardens into adopting indigenous plants that naturally repel tea-harming insects. “In this matter, organic tea is much more climate resilient than the chemical version. And its demand is high too. But it is more expensive,” Muraleedharan said.

So, it is an uncertain future for the steaming cup of ‘chai’ in your hands. But, as experts keep brainstorming to keep the deluge of problems from the tea plants, the good news is that all hope is not lost. Not yet. (Azera Rahman, IANS)

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Worsening Extreme Weather Linked to Climate Change Creating Hardships for Many

Julia Sanger, whose tiny ice cream shop flooded twice in two years in Maryland's historic Ellicott City, joked darkly that the disasters left many local business owners

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Weather, Climate Change, Hardships
FILE - A man walks in a torrential downpour in Ellicott City, Maryland, April 30, 2014. VOA

Worsening extreme weather linked to climate change is creating hardships for many, from immediate deaths and injuries to increases in asthma and heat stroke. But the psychological trauma that often accompanies such losses is barely on the map.

Depression, anxiety, suicide and post-traumatic stress disorder tend to increase after floods, storms, wildfires and heat waves, according to the American Psychological Association (APA), which represents psychologists in the United States.

“The problem with that link is it’s not like so obvious. It’s not like I stick a needle in you, you feel pain right away,” said Anthony Ng, former head of the APA’s caucus on climate change and mental health.

“Some of this is so insidious and gradual that people won’t realize it until it’s too late. That’s why it’s hard for a lot of people to appreciate it.”

Panic

Weather, Climate Change, Hardships
FILE – A car drives on the main street of the former mill town in Ellicott City, Maryland, Aug. 23, 2018. VOA

The debate over how to safeguard residents of picturesque Ellicott City, a tourist draw an hour’s drive north of Washington, D.C., illustrates the challenges many towns are facing as the world becomes warmer and wetter.

The town was devastated in 2016 by a so-called 1,000-year flood — meaning a magnitude with a one-in-1,000 chance of occurring in any year. The Patapsco River, which runs through the town, rose more than 13 feet in less than two hours.

Less than two years later, a 1,000-year storm struck again, overwhelming the tributaries that converge under the old mill town’s buildings and feed into the Patapsco.

Warmer temperatures are increasing heavy downpours, and rainfall has been growing in intensity in the Northeast, according to the government’s 2018 National Climate Assessment, risking power outages and the viability of roads and bridges.

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As Ellicott City has become more built up, floodwater flows across paved roads and rooftops, instead of percolating down through the soil as it used to — a phenomenon known as urban runoff, which is worsening globally as cities grow.

In the wake of the 2018 floods, the county launched the Ellicott City Safe and Sound plan, which involves demolishing some old buildings, making tunnels to carry water under roads and clearing waterways more regularly.

Officials are also testing a flood warning system, with emergency sirens telling people to move to higher ground. It has caused some alarm among residents, said Amy Miller, a social worker at the Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center.

“You almost have a panic response,” said Miller, whose non-profit organization, based in Columbia, some 8 miles (13 km) south, has provided food, shelter and support to flood survivors.

Weather, Climate Change, Hardships
FILE – Damage along Main Street in historic Ellicott City, Maryland, is viewed Aug. 1, 2016, after the city was ravaged by floodwaters, killing two people and causing devastating damage to homes and businesses, officials said. VOA

“We’re basically exposing ourselves to the perceived threat of a traumatic event.”

Suicides

Grassroots provides 24-hour counseling to people in Ellicott City and the surrounding rolling hills of Howard County who might be feeling suicidal.

Miller has trained farmers to watch out for each other and spot signs of danger, particularly suicide risks.

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Farmers are a high risk group. They tend to live solitary lives, have access to lethal means and face financial stress when hit by poor weather and low prices — factors they cannot control, according to anti-suicide campaigners.

“When your livelihood is impacted, that causes hopelessness,” Miller said. “The hard part for farmers is they work almost 24-7, and it’s really hard for them to seek treatment.”

Stanford University predicted last year that a hotter planet could lead to a surge in suicides by 2050. Its data analysis found suicides had risen 0.7% in the United States and 2.1% in Mexico with a 1°C increase in monthly average temperatures.

The researchers also found — by analyzing the language used in more than a half billion Twitter posts — depressive language increased during hot weather, suggesting worse mental health.

Weather, Climate Change, Hardships
FILE – Residents gather by a bridge to look at cars left crumpled in one of the tributaries of the Patapsco River that burst its banks as it channeled through historic Main Street in Ellicott City, Maryland, May 28, 2018. VOA

Keith Ohlinger, one of the Howard County farmers trained to keep an eye out, said he was driven to the work by the suicide of a young friend who grew up on a nearby farm, planned a career in agriculture and took her own life last year at age 21.

He struggled this spring with heavy rains washing away seeds and soil and leaving hay too wet to be dried and stored for winter feeding.

“Things are changing,” he said. “The Earth is changing, patterns are changing. Things are melting.”

Ohlinger uses his position on the Maryland Agricultural Commission, which advises the government on farming, and at monthly farmers club meetings to bring up mental health, often taboo in the conservative agricultural community.

He said climate change was just one more stress for farmers already worried about commodity prices, credit, bank loans, the price of equipment and old family-run farms being squeezed out by more and more giant residential homes known as McMansions.

“I can’t fix pricing. I can’t fix what the Chinese president or Donald Trump does, but I can surely try and keep someone from killing themselves,” Ohlinger said.

Not everyone in the region is willing to make the link between mental health problems and climate change.

Global warming as a manmade phenomenon is a politically divisive topic in the United States, where President Donald Trump announced plans to withdraw from the Paris agreement, a global pact to fight climate change.

“You talk about global warming, but we deal with this stuff all the time,” said another Howard County farmer, Howie Feago.

“Most farmers believe it’s more of an ebb and flow. We know that the weather is going to be up and down. If you’re going to worry about global warming, you probably ought to get some other kind of job because it will drive you nuts.” (VOA)