Heatwaves in India are testing the limits of human survival

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New Delhi looks like it is on fire. The heat comes out of the street in violent waves and the water flowing from the cold tap is too hot to touch. Daytime temperatures have reached 44 degrees Celsius (111 Fahrenheit) and often don’t drop below 30 at night. A giant landfill on the outskirts of the capital spontaneously caught fire a week ago, and the 17-story-tall landfill containing millions of tons of waste continues to burn under the ashes, worsening the city’s already dangerously polluted air.

Daily power outages caused by increased electricity demand have resulted in blackouts of up to eight hours in parts of India, while stocks of coal, the fuel that accounts for 70% of the country’s electricity generation, are running out. , causing warnings of a new power crisis. The northern wheat crop is burned. It was the hottest March in the past 122 years. Spring simply didn’t come, and those extreme temperatures continued into April and May (though they are expected to subside this week). However, it is not until June that the monsoon should arrive and provide any kind of relief.

The most alarming thing about this heatwave is that it is not so much a one-time trial as a taste of things to come, as the effects of global warming push India and its neighbors to levels where climate is a fundamental threat to the country. human health.

The most concerning meteorological measurement is not the heat typically reported in forecasts, but the wet bulb temperature, which combines heat and humidity to indicate how much evaporation can be absorbed into the air. In wet bulb temperatures above 35 degrees Celsius, we are unable to reduce our temperature through sweating and will suffer potentially fatal heatstroke after only a few hours, even in shade and water. Similar effects can occur for those working outdoors when wet bulb temperatures exceed 32 degrees and measurements up to 28 degrees caused tens of thousands of deaths in the European and Russian heatwaves of 2003 and 2010.

Humidity decreases as temperatures rise, so such events were once thought to be extraordinarily rare. A 2018 study concluded that the coldest temperatures near 35 degrees “almost never occur in the current climate.” Indeed, a deeper analysis of weather station data carried out in 2020 suggests that they are already happening relatively frequently, particularly in the densely populated belt from the Persian Gulf through Pakistan and northwestern India.

Only 12% of India’s 1.4 billion citizens have access to air conditioning, meaning hundreds of millions of people are simply unable to cool off when their bodies reach the point of heatstroke. This is mirrored in neighboring Pakistan, which is experiencing equally catastrophic heatwave conditions. The daily wage earners, who toil in the fields, work in factories and construction, sweep roads and build roads, have no escape.

Several regions of India have already approached critical wet-bulb temperatures in the past week, according to government data, although maximum temperatures did not necessarily occur at the same time as peak temperatures. In the eastern state of Odisha, maximum temperatures and humidity in parts of the capital Bhubaneswar on Sunday would have produced wet-bulb temperatures of 36.6 degrees Celsius if they had occurred simultaneously, the data show. Calcutta, a city larger than Los Angeles or London, also saw conditions last Friday that would reach 35 degrees if simultaneous.

The risk is that, even if the most dangerous levels are avoided in the current heatwave, each hot season is a new roll of the dice as to whether a strange event will occur that will lead to a large number of deaths. The odds get longer with each passing year. The world is currently in the grip of a La Nina climate cycle, which typically brings cooler summer weather to India. When the next move to El Nino, the risks will still increase.

The fact that the government has not declared a national disaster and provided an adequate response will come as no surprise to those who experienced the deadly Covid-19 epidemic in the nation.

India has a “National Action Plan on Heat-Related Diseases” and on May 1 the federal government issued a warning to states urging them to ensure hospitals were prepared to deal with an anticipated surge in demand. But given that the Indian Meteorological Department (which began collecting data nationwide in 1901) sounded the alarm with heatwave warnings on April 25, it all seems a bit underpowered. Recommended measures such as whitewashing roofs to cool building interiors would not be enough to deal with a major heat wave. Tips for ensuring safe power to health centers won’t help if the heat and load of millions of air conditioners knocks the power grid out when it’s needed most.

A year ago, India was recovering from a deadly wave of Covid-19 when citizens took to social media for oxygen and hospitals rejected critically ill who were breathing out of breath as the underfunded health care system collapsed under the weight. of decades of neglect of government. The World Health Organization estimates that at least 4 million Indians have died in that carnage, well beyond the official figure of just under 524,000 victims. (Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government disputes this finding, although it has been replicated by other experts.)

We will never know, as most deaths are not recorded in the largest democracy in the world. So many of those who die from the heat, dying on the oven floors they sleep on or in the unbearably hot slums on the edge of the city, will similarly remain countless. This means that governments, state and federal, will never properly plan heatwaves, nor will they invest in the infrastructure and systems needed to provide relief and help reduce the intensity of these climate change-induced disasters. With a warming planet and the increasing intensity of extreme weather events, things must change.

More from other writers at Bloomberg Opinion:

• China’s water scarcity frightens its neighbors: Hal Brands

• Pakistan’s political crisis is an energy crisis: David Fickling

• Is India Really Ready for the Next Great Outbreak ?: Ruth Pollard

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editors or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Ruth Pollard is a columnist and editor of Bloomberg Opinion. She previously was the South and Southeast Asian government team leader at Bloomberg News. She has reported from India and all over the Middle East and focuses on foreign policy, defense and security.

David Fickling is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist who focuses on commodities as well as industrial and consumer companies. He has been a reporter for Bloomberg News, Dow Jones, Wall Street Journal, Financial Times and Guardian.

More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion

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