India’s sweltering heatwaves cause unbearable suffering

Experts call for urgent action to prepare vulnerable communities and protect them from the heat’s disastrous impacts.

Published : May 31, 2023 14:43 IST - 4 MINS READ

India’s poor and daily-wage labourers employed in outdoor work have been the worst hit by the extreme heat.

India’s poor and daily-wage labourers employed in outdoor work have been the worst hit by the extreme heat. | Photo Credit: Rajesh Kumar Singh/AP Photo/picture alliance

Blistering heat has taken a toll on people’s lives in large parts of India as temperatures went as high as 45 degrees Celsius in recent weeks.

The India Meteorological Department (IMD) issued a heat wave alert for some states across the nation in May. The agency warned that sizzling temperatures will continue until rains bring some relief.

The southwest monsoon was slightly delayed this year and is expected to hit in the first week of June, causing temperatures to stay high longer than usual, it said. “Yes, the temperatures in some places have crossed the threshold limit in parts of the county,” D S Pai, a scientist at IMD, told DW.

Who are the most affected?

The searing heat forced many people to seek refuge indoors. But the poor and daily-wage labourers employed in outdoor work such as in the construction sector have been the worst-hit.

They usually have no choice but to continue toiling in the sweltering heat to make ends meet and also lack access to cooling solutions like fans and air conditioners.

“A large proportion of our population is highly vulnerable to heat waves due to the possession of fewer household amenities as well as lower rates of literacy and access to water and sanitation,” Sunita Narain, director of the Centre for Science and Environment in Delhi, told DW.

The extreme weather conditions can also cause health issues and even deaths.

In April, 13 people died from heatstroke and over 12 others suffered from heat-related illnesses in Maharashtra after attending a public event organised by the state government. A 2021 study by the country’s top meteorologists found that heat waves have claimed more than 17,000 lives in 50 years in India.

How is climate change impacting the heat?

The main summer months—from April to June—are always hot in most parts of India. But temperatures have become more intense in the past decade. South Asia as a whole is considered among the most vulnerable to climate change in the world.

A study published earlier in May by World Weather Attribution, an academic group that examines the source of extreme heat, found that heat waves in the region were made at least 30 times more likely by climate change.

Scientists say temperatures are at least 2°C hotter in South Asia than in pre-industrial times because of climate change.

Also Read | Explained: How a temperature rise of 2°C impacts billions

What happens if current trends continue?

If current warming trends continue, temperatures will rise so high that the human body’s ability to maintain a stable internal temperature and expel excess heat through sweating could be significantly compromised, said experts like Krishna AchutaRao, a professor at the Indian Institute of Technology’s Centre for Atmospheric Sciences in New Delhi.

This will lead to heat stress, heat exhaustion and even life-threatening conditions like heatstroke, they added.

“This heat wave has been deadly and studies have shown that climate change exacerbated it not only in terms of temperature but also in terms of the increased humidity — with the heat index 2°C warmer than without climate change,” AchutaRao pointed out.

He warned that India would face more frequent and intense heat waves in the future, affecting everything from jobs and power production to water and food supply.

Abinash Mohanty, sector head of climate change and sustainability at IPE-Global, an international development organisation, said the latest heat wave in India was a “classic example” of how climate change is negatively affecting the lives and livelihoods of people.

“India is going to lose 34 million jobs by 2030 only because of heat waves. Agricultural productivity is going to reduce. It will make a dent in food security, the supply cold chain and the economic sector,” he underlined.

“The time has come to strengthen local climate action across heat stress districts and cities” with strong government policies, Mohanty said. “The heat action (HAP) plans are a good start, but they need to be backed by policy and financial support to make India heat- wave-ready,” he added.

Also Read | With heatwaves on the rise, does India have a heat emergency plan?

What can India do to cope with extreme heat?

Scientists worldwide also say drastic measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are necessary to control the fast-rising global temperatures.

India is currently the third-highest emitter of planet-warming gases. But its per capita carbon footprint is far lower compared to Western industrialised nations.

According to the World Bank, India emits on average about two tons of CO2 per person every year, compared to around seven tons per person in the European Union and 15 in the United States.

Earth’s surface temperature is currently on track to rise 2.7°C above pre-industrial levels by 2100.

Such an increase is expected to push over 2 billion people worldwide well outside the climate comfort zone, researchers warned in a Nature Sustainability report published last week. As many as 600 million of these people will be in India, they said.

Roxy Mathew Koll, a climate scientist at the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology, said India needed to gather sufficient data to identify the most vulnerable regions and put in place effective policies to deal with the problem.

“India needs a long-term vision where we have policies that help us in managing our work hours, public infrastructure, schools, hospitals, workplaces, houses, transportation, and agriculture to cope with the future heat waves.”

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