Heatwave Burns Through India Earlier Than Usual as Climate Crisis Deepens
Indian children have to stay indoors in certain areas because of extreme heat.

When schools closed for the summer in March, the vibrant sound of children playing on the streets of Mumbai was conspicuously absent as they stayed indoors to avoid the scorching heat.

The early onset of heatwaves this year has affected several parts of India just as citizens were getting back to normal life after the Omicron wave subsidedThe Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) noted that “heatwave to severe heatwave conditions were observed” in several parts of the country, with temperatures reaching 39 to 41 °C, which is  4 to 6 °C above normal.

The IPCC 6th assessment report (AR6) on ‘ Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability’, released this February, highlights heatwaves and rising surface temperatures as one of the major climate challenges faced by India. The report states that with increasing urbanization and land-use change, more people are likely to be vulnerable to heat stress.

“The frequency and intensity of heatwaves will increase exponentially as unplanned anthropocentric development has disrupted the landscape, and proper circulation of warmer air from land to oceans and vice-versa is not taking place,” Abinash Mohanty, program lead for the Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW), New Delhi, told Health Policy Watch.

Last year, a CEEW analysis found that 45% of India’s landscape has been disrupted by unsustainable planning, and this is triggering microclimatic changes, such as surges in heatwaves and other extreme weather events.

Trapped heat 

“Further, heat islands are being created – imagine having a heater in your room on a warm day – where the heat is trapped and cannot go out. This is seen more in urban hamlets because urban areas also emit a lot more carbon emissions that increase the local temperature,” Mohanty added.

Chandni Singh, Senior Research Consultant at the Indian Institute of Human Settlements in Bangalore and a lead author of the AR6 report warned that India faced more heatwaves.

“The IPCC report says that the globe has already warmed by 1.1 °C above pre-industrial level.  India has warmed by 0.9 °C on average. If we continue to emit as we are doing now, we will see more heat waves – especially in cities, where we are seeing hot days, and hot nights,” Singh told Health Policy Watch.

She explained that after a hot day, cool nights were important to enable the body to recuperate from the heat. But if the night is also hot, this will have a negative impact on the health of many people, particularly those who work outdoors or in small, poorly ventilated, rooms, people with comorbidities, children, older people and pregnant women.

Exacerbating inequality

Anjal Prakash, also a lead author on the AR6 report and research director of Bharti Institute of Public Policy at Hyderabad’s Indian School of Business, said that the IPCC assessment emphasizes the fact that social and economic inequities compound vulnerability to climate change and could further exacerbate injustices, as well as constrain climate actions. 

“People and livelihoods that are climate-sensitive will be directly affected. “Agriculture, fisheries and coastal and Himalayan ecosystems will have bearing on around 60% of people in India who are directly dependent on these primary sources of livelihood,” Prakash told Health Policy Watch.

The IPCC assessment uses the wet-bulb globe temperature – an index of the impact of heat and humidity combined, to gauge the impact of heat stress. The critical wet bulb temperature threshold above which humans are unlikely to survive is 35°C.

“in some of the densely populated regions of South Asia, the critical threshold of the wet-bulb temperature of 35 °C will be exceeded under the business-as-usual scenario of future greenhouse gas emissions. Based on this, it is most likely that India will be facing the issues of heat and humidity, the decline in glacial mass balance, sea level rise and cyclones,” said Prakash.

Meanwhile, Singh pointed out that, in many coastal areas across India, we have already reached wet-bulb temperatures of 24 to 25 °C. 

“If carbon emissions are not mitigated, we can hit 35 °C by 2050/2060- we are not adequately thinking about the impacts of this,” she added.

More heat stroke and tropical diseases

Heatwaves since the 1990s have claimed 17,000 deaths in India and impacted health. 

“Heat stress affects health, productivity and livelihoods. Exposure to heat causes heat exhaustion. If this is not treated, it will lead to heat stroke where fatality is very high,” said Rohit Mogatra, deputy director of Integrated Research and Action for Development in New Delhi.

“Unfortunately, people are not aware of how heat affects them since they are living in a tropical climate. Even doctors have trouble identifying if the patients are suffering from normal fever or heat stroke,” added Mogatra.

Training doctors, providing oral rehydration solutions in Primary Healthcare Centres (PHCs), ensuring access to drinking water, clean toilets, and proper housing design are important measures to adapt to heat stress, he said.

Increasing temperature also changes the transmission of vector-borne diseases such as dengue and malaria.  

“Places that were not seeing these diseases will start seeing incidences. Dengue could spread to the foothills of Himalayas and places where the disease is prevalent, may have increasing incidences,” said Singh.

Ministry of Climate?

However, the future is not all bleak. India has introduced some adaptation policies such as early warning colour coded alerts issued by the IMD. For coastal cities, a yellow alert is issued at 35.9°C, orange at 41.5°C, and red at 43.5°C, for cities with a dry and arid climate, orange is 43°C  and red at 45°C, and for hilly regions above 30 °C is considered a heatwave.

Other initiatives include heat action plans (HAPs) and cool roofs, which have helped to  reduce loss of lives, but there are still gaps in implementation of these policies.

But Singh opined that while heat action plans are doing well, as are other measures such as shifting neonatal wards to lower floors and asking people to stay indoors, these are short -term measures. What is lacking is the link between HAPs and city development plan, she said.

“For example, how can we harness green cover to mitigate heat? Low-income groups have very low green cover as they are densely populated. Where do you plant tress with space constraints? Can we look at other forms such as terrace gardens or balcony gardens? There is anecdotal evidence that this helps people feel the reduction of temperature in their homes.”

Meanwhile, Prakash advocated for a separate ministry for climate change staffed by climate scientists and climate change practitioners to work in the science-policy-diplomacy space “so that we have the required acumen and skills to combat climate change at the central level”.


Image Credits: Loren Joseph/ Unsplash.

Combat the infodemic in health information and support health policy reporting from the global South. Our growing network of journalists in Africa, Asia, Geneva and New York connect the dots between regional realities and the big global debates, with evidence-based, open access news and analysis. To make a personal or organisational contribution click here on PayPal.