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How climate change is impacting some of your favourite Indian tea

In the northeastern state of Assam, global warming is having an adverse impact of the region's sprawling tea gardens.

A tea garden worker in an Assam tea garden.

Assam, a state in northeast India, is the highest producer of tea in the country. In 2023, Assam produced 38 million kilograms (kgs) of tea, which is the highest produced by any state in the country. The annual average of tea produced in amounts is between 630 and 700 million kgs. More than half of India's total tea production comes from Assam.

The tea industry in Assam thus contributes significantly to the national economy. It also provides employment opportunities to a large section of the population. Tea has a rich cultural and historical significance in the state, given its history in the country where the roots of tea plantations go back to the British. The tea plantations also attract tourists, boosting the local economy with tourism-related businesses.

The state's distinct climatic and geographic features make it an ideal location for producing tea. However, the uncertain weather events in Assam have been severely impacting the tea plantations in Assam. The disruption in the weather events such as irregular rainfall, extreme temperatures and climate change has had a devastating impact on tea yields, affecting the quality and quantity.

According to the Climate Vulnerability Index (CVI), Assam is extremely vulnerable to climate events like floods, droughts, and cyclones. Assam has been experiencing an increase in temperatures, lengthier dry spells and shifting rainfall patterns. As per the Assam State Action Plan on Climate Change (2021-2030), the state's water resources, agriculture, forests, biodiversity, and human habitats are all being impacted by the continuous warming of the climate and resulting changes in precipitation patterns.

Assam saw a period of unpredictable rainfall. The traditional monsoon patterns of the state are disrupted by climate change, resulting in irregular and unexpected rainfall. The irregular rainfall causes drought, floods, and soil erosion, all of which are harmful to tea bushes. According to a study from the Indian Institute of Technology, Guwahati, Assam's tea-growing regions have seen prolonged periods of little to no rain and heavy rainfall, which has caused waterlogging and soil erosion in tea gardens.

The state’s excessive rainfall and humidity also mean that there is a space for a wide variety of pests and diseases. The impact of insect and pest attacks in a particular year depends on climate and environmental factors, their ability to survive and thrive can be affected by the temperatures, humidity and rainfall. The emergence of these pests and insects has negatively impacted the tea plantations. The attacks on tea plantations are indeed common in Assam. To fight the occurrence of pests in tea gardens, one has to use pesticides, which can have positive as well as negative effects. While using pesticide can help in the fight against pests, it can also lead to groundwater contamination and the build up of residue in tea, thus affecting the quality.

The state's average maximum temperature rose by 0.049°C a year between 1990 and 2019. A report by The Weather Channel, mentioned that around 82 plantations yields were affected when the average temperature rose above 26.6°C.

Assam, with its extensive river network, is vulnerable to natural disasters such as flooding. The state is prone to floods, particularly because of The Brahmaputra River, as it plays a significant role in causing flooding in Assam. In 2023, Assam witnessed the worst floods, affecting 32 out of 35 districts. In the year 2020, floods hampered the work in tea plantations thereby reducing output by more than 10 percent. There was a hike in the price of tea as well by 25-40 percent.

Floods damage the tea plantations thus affecting the production. It also leads to soil erosion as flood water carries away the topsoil, which is crucial for tea cultivation. This topsoil erosion can reduce the amount of nutrients in the soil, making it less suited for producing tea. As a result, yields are reduced and the tea is of lower quality.

There has been installation of irrigation pipes and sprinklers in the tea gardens, a step towards resolving the problems and challenges that the tea gardens face. The effective irrigation management will help in higher tea yields and better quality. It will also reduce the dependency on rainfall during insufficient rains and droughts. The use of irrigation systems in tea gardens can result in additional costs, which can lead to higher overall production costs.

Earlier, Assam used to have a perfect balance of the right amount of sunlight and rainfall, which now has been disrupted by climate change. In order for the tea leaves to grow, they need the right balance of sunlight and rainfall for their growth and flavor of the tea. With the climatic conditions impacting tea plantations, the flavor of the tea can now be compromised.

The tea gardens in Assam are facing a challenging road. With ensuring sustainability, building climate resilience, smart irrigation facilities, shade grown tea and various other practices, Assam's tea growers can ensure a successful and long-lasting future for the tea industry while conserving the state’s unique tea legacy.

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