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Thursday, June 20, 2024

Killer heat waves are ravaging India – and things are about to get worse

Northern India is experiencing record temperatures. A report predicts similar events will be 45 times more likely in future – and informal sector workers and poorer school children are set to bear the brunt

Even in a country so accustomed to spells of searing heat, India has been grappling with temperatures that have seen the mercury rise to increasingly unbearable heights – and with fatal consequences.

Delhi recorded close to 50C (122F) in May, while the heat wave sweeping across other states in northern India has taken a substantial toll on the nation’s election workers. According to experts, rising summer temperatures are here to stay.

As many as 61 people have died due to the current heat wave, including 33 on election duty and a voter in Uttar Pradesh (UP), India’s most populous state, as well as eight on election duty in neighboring Bihar. The Health Ministry confirmed 56 heat-related deaths in the country by May 30, 46 of which had happened in that month alone. 

The Indian Meteorological Department issued an orange alert (cautioning people to “be prepared”) on June 1, the final day of voting, and the ‘loo’ – the hot summer wind – depressed the turnout by 61.63%, 3.5% lower than in 2019.

What is worrying is that the latest World Weather Attribution Report released last month predicts that such heat waves will be 45 times more likely (compared to pre-industrial times) in the years to come, attributing the cause to human-induced climate change.

People take rest under the shade of a bridge to shelter from the scorching sun on a hot summer day along the banks of river Ganges in Prayagraj on June 3, 2024.


©  Anil SHAKYA / AFP

“The thermo-regulatory sensors of the body – responsible for temperature control by making the body sweat – go out of whack as the temperature rises above 47C or 48C,” says D Himanshu of the department of medicine at the King George Medical University in Lucknow, UP. “The body’s temperature then keeps rising.” 

“If a person has not drunk enough water, the sweating stops and the condition worsens. If the body temperature goes beyond 40C, patients may have fever due to heatstroke. This fever is different as it is caused due to the malfunctioning of thermo-regulators and not due to the immune system’s activity, rendering normal fever medicines like paracetamol failures,” Himanshu adds. 


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Renuka Keshwan, a government school teacher who was on election duty during the fifth phase on May 20 in Lucknow, says: “The mock poll and the final day were unbearable with just a ceiling fan at our disposal. Managing big crowds and keeping a check to ensure fair elections was a big challenge. After two back-to-back days of over 16 hours of duty, I ran a high fever due to the heat.”

High Temperatures = Low Voter Turnout

The latest WWA report says one of the reasons for the low voter turnout in the 2024 election could be the extreme heat wave. 

The Met department circulated to the Election Commission a list of ‘Assured Minimum Facilities’ that included provisions for drinking water, arrangements for shade. and proper furniture for senior citizens, persons with disabilities and pregnant women. However, the instructions for air-coolers or fans for voters and polling officers were missing from that list.

While India has implemented Heat Action Plans in 23 of its 29 states to minimize casualties – the government claims to have reduced the number from 2,040 casualties in 2015 to 27 in 2021, thanks to these plans – there are discrepancies in the data. 

Voters queue up to cast their ballots at a polling station during the seventh and final phase of voting in India’s general election in Chandigarh on June 1, 2024.


©  AFP

“The problem is that on a death certificate most medical professionals write organ failure as the cause of death instead of heat-stress that led to the organ failure,” Soumya Dutta, trustee of Movement for Advancing Understanding on Sustainability and Mutuality (MAUSAM), told RT. “This makes it difficult to collate the cause of death to the heat wave.” 

“We are getting over eight to 10 patients suffering from heatstroke in almost every hospital in UP,” a government health officer in UP told RT on condition of anonymity. “The government has ordered the setting up of cold rooms, equipped with air conditioners, with four to five beds to cater to as many patients as possible. They are given cold patches to apply on their heads, palms and feet. They are also given oral rehydration solutions and, if necessary, intravenous fluids.” 

With 4,903 government hospitals in UP, this tallies to 39,000 to 49,000 heatstroke-related patients every day in UP alone. The actual all-India number, with several states under orange alert, could be in the millions.

A doctor is checking with a patient who is suffering from heatstroke in Varanasi, India, on May 30, 2024. India is reporting its first heat-related death this year according to an Indian media report.


©  Indranil Aditya/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Heat waves hit education, especially of the poor

The WWA report adds that while climate change has made the April heat wave in India 45 times more likely, other nearby countries, especially those in South, West, and South-east Asia, are likely to face even worse conditions in the future. 

“In the current climate, warmed by 1.2C since pre-industrial times due to human activity, this kind of extreme heat event is not very rare,” it states.


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The report adds that Bangladesh and Pakistan faced heat waves disrupting lives, leading to the closure of schools, and widening the existing education gap. India currently has a 12.6% drop-out rate in secondary school, which is lower than ever before – but might rise along with the heat. 

“The extreme heat has forced thousands of schools to close in South and Southeast Asia,” the report says. “These regions have previously also incurred school lockdowns during COVID-19, increasing the education gap faced by children from low-income families, enhancing the risk of dropouts, and negatively impacts the development of human capital.”

People are filling water in plastic drums from a supply tanker of Delhi Government, during a high temperature heat wave, at Chanakyapuri, on June 1, 2024 in New Delhi, India.


©  Salman Ali/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

It adds that West Asia and the Philippines might have one such heat wave once every ten years while the countries come under the current El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) conditions. The report attributed the rise in frequency and intensity of the heat wave to human-induced climate change. 

“Heatwaves such as this one in West Asia are today about 1.7C warmer than they would have been without the burning of fossil fuels,” it states. “In the Philippines the intensity increase due to human-induced climate change is about 1.2C.”

In South Asia, the report observed a ‘strong climate change signal in the 2024 April mean temperature’ and stated that the extreme temperatures are now about 45 times more likely and 0.85C hotter.

Informal sector workers adversely impacted

The report warns of adverse impact on informal sector workers like vegetable vendors, farm laborers, construction workers, drivers, and fishermen, pointing out that while countries such as India have comprehensive heat action plans in place, they need to be expanded to protect vulnerable people with workplace interventions to address heat stress, scheduled rest breaks, fixed work hours, and rest-shade-rehydrate programs (RSH). 


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Wiping sweat from his brow, Sihinna Anirwar (55), a laborer in Jhansi, UP, says: “I have been in construction for the last 25 years, but it has never been this bad.” 

“My head and body keep aching but I have no choice but to work,” he says, as orders to halt construction work are ignored by managers. “Working day and night on a construction site is bad enough but add this heat and you are as good as unemployed because your body refuses to function.” 

Anirwar has been living off of fluids for the last two days as he fell ill working in the Sun. All he is praying for is a little respite, he says. 

Construction workers take rest during the lunch break under a flyover on May 29, 2024 in Gurugram, India amid all-time high temperature of 52.9 degrees Celsius (127.22 Fahrenheit).


©  Parveen Kumar/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

Dutta says that the temperature that IMD weather stations record is different from the actual temperature that the working population feels on the roads, at construction sites, on farms, etc. 

“Even if IMD is not recording above normal temperatures, the informal sector workers might be facing those conditions due to the urban heat island effect,” he says. 

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The WWA underscores the importance of heat wave action plans and strategies in these countries, but adds that rapidly growing cities, an increase in informal settlements and exposed populations, a reduction in green spaces, and a rise in energy demands pose major challenges to their implementation. 

Dutta states that most HAPs do not take the heat index into account and only prioritize temperature rise. 

“Heat index is the combination of humidity and temperature that our IMD and HAPs do not address, but it is worse than dry heat,” he says. “The apparent temperature is the temperature that is felt by the body when relative humidity is combined with the air temperature. So while the temperature might itself be 45 degrees, if humidity is high, it can feel like 53, a killer combination.” 

For HAPs to be truly effective, IMD needs to focus on the heat index along with temperature and then design actions, Datta says.

But for the foreseeable future, HAPs alone might be a case of “too little, too late” as millions of Indians in the working class or below the poverty line are doomed to suffer scorching heat, with little respite in sight. 

June 03, 2024 at 09:31PM
RT

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