The great Indian heat wave – the making of a new natural disaster

India, a nation that has contributed little to global warming, is bearing the full brunt of climate change. Over the past few months, India has melted under rising temperatures, and experts say this is just the beginning. After battling calamitous cyclones like the Amphan, relentless flooding in the south and deadly landslides, northern India is now facing a deadly heatwave. The headlines are all about climate change as extreme weather calamities become more frequent, intense and widespread around the world rather than rare events like they once were.

Situation on the ground

While heat waves in India are usual during the summer months of May and June, the sun beat down early this year with March recording the highest average maximum temperatures on record for the past 122 years. The mercury rose steadily through April, recording average highs of 35.3 degrees (95 F), with the nation’s capital New Delhi hitting record highs of 49 degrees (May 16). While the northern states of Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Rajasthan are the worst affected, others like Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Odisha, Bihar and Jharkhand have consistently recorded skyrocketing temperatures.

The summer of 2022 has caused immense losses in the social, economic and ecological spheres of India. The heat wave caused the start of the third hottest April on record, ushering in a new reality in which intense heat waves are 30 times more likely to occur in India due to climate change. In this rapidly changing era, it is imperative to understand and study these extreme weather events, to be prepared, to form predictable patterns and to develop strategies to combat them and mitigate their effects.

In addition to the increased carbon footprint, India’s heat waves have been largely attributed to atmospheric factors: rising surface temperatures in the Indian Ocean, lack of periodic rainfall and weakening of the influence of western disturbances, usual at this time of year. Lack of pre-monsoon activity and high pressures in the west, which cause hot, dry weather in summer by compressing winds around high pressure systems, further intensified extreme weather. The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) has described the timing, intensity and frequency of these heat waves as a role of climate change. This matches the predictions of the 2021 IPCC report of impending heat extremes and long, intense and frequent heat waves, unless drastic measures are taken collectively to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Impact of the heat wave

After floods, heatwaves are the second deadliest calamity in India, having claimed 41,333 lives since 1967. This time the impacts have been deeply felt through adverse changes in agricultural, public and animal health. Of the densely populated 1.3 billion people, only 12% have access to air conditioning. Millions of the working class comprising vendors, construction workers and farmers were the most vulnerable to fatal heatstroke and prolonged heat-induced stress.

According to media reports, the current heatwave has claimed at least 100 lives, with 25 reported in Maharashtra itself, another state record. Additionally, coal shortages have led to power outages, compounding the health effects. Agricultural disaster for wheat yields ensued and there is an estimated 10-35% reduction in crop yields in Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Punjab.

Ecologically, there is an increased risk of forest fires and drought. These effects pale in comparison to the disastrous economic losses and yet we only scratch the surface of what is yet to come. According to a 2020 article by the McKinsey Global Institute, declining labor productivity and loss of work hours ‘due to increased heat and humidity could take around 2.5 to 4 .5% of GDP at risk by 2023, or about $150-250 billion”.

The reason for these monumental losses is that extreme heat greatly diminishes an individual’s ability to perform outdoor work effectively. Work exposed to heat employs about 75% of the active population (380 million people) and produces about 50% of GDP. The International Labor Organization says that due to extreme temperatures there will be a projected loss of 6% of total working hours, equivalent to the loss of 3.4 crore full-time jobs .

Exit

Over the past few years, India has been ravaged by climate change with traces across the subcontinent. Every part of the nation has had to grapple with the veil of global warming, many of which have irreparable consequences. As the days get shorter and the nights get hotter, India must meet the daunting task of meeting 50% of the country’s energy needs from renewable sources by 2030, as promised at COP26.

Government work is cut. Reducing the carbon footprint, planting more trees, creating green buildings instead of concrete infrastructure that traps heat, in addition to effective planning to alleviate hardship for those on the margins, is essential. As tensions mount, the undeniable truth emerges: it’s now or never!

Auvi Mukherjee, winner of the 2021 Queen’s Commonwealth Essay Competition Gold Prize, is a football enthusiast, climate warrior and occasional blogger. Along with a group of school friends, he also runs a website and Instagram account highlighting the impact of climate change