India’s brutal heat alarm

Noble Pettayil Babu

India’s weather department has issued a severe heatwave warning as temperatures soar, throwing millions of lives and livelihoods out of gear. Some states in India have seen temperatures top 43 °C (110 °F), with northwest India likely to see even higher temperatures in the coming days, according to the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD). Extreme heat can be deadly, especially for a region where many lack access to cooling. And climate change is making heat waves more frequent and severe, with periods of hot days stretching out longer in places like South Asia.

Fifteen Indian states and territories have been affected by heat waves since March, according to the Center for Science and Environment, a public interest research and advocacy organization based in New Delhi. The states of Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh in northwest and central India were hardest hit; each having observed 25 heat wave days so far this spring. While heatwaves are common in India, especially in May and June, summer began early this year with high temperatures from March itself – average maximum temperatures in the month were the highest in 122 years. Heatwaves also began setting in during the month. Prime minister Narendra Modi says his country is getting too hot too early in the year.  Authorities have issued an alert and asked vulnerable people to avoid the outdoors.

Heat waves exert enormous impacts on health, agriculture and availability of water all often related to each other in complex ways. Even though the number of deaths due to heat waves in India has decreased over the years, research shows that the general physical and mental wellbeing of people does get affected by extreme temperatures.

On the other hand, agricultural yields get impacted as well. For instance, the wheat crop in the current rabi season in Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh has been impacted by heat waves. Many farmers have reported losses between 20 and 60 percent in these states. This happened because the heat waves were early this year and the temperatures affected the wheat plants during their growth stage, leading to shrivelled grains which fetch lower prices in the market, resulting in losses. To reduce agricultural losses due to heat waves, heat-tolerant varieties of wheat need to be developed. 

India is among the countries expected to be worst affected by the impacts of the climate crisis, according to the UN’s climate change authority, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The latest state of the science report from the IPCC, noted with “high confidence” that hot extremes have increased in South Asia, and that those climbing extreme temperatures are attributable to human-caused climate change. Without any change, a possible humanitarian crisis could be underway across India as large parts of the country could potentially become too hot to be habitable.