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"No one cares if we live or die": millions affected by historic heatwave

June 14, 2022
topic:Natural disaster
tags:#India, #heatwave, #global-warming, #climate change, #landfills
by:Rahat Touhid
Record-breaking and unusually early heatwaves in India, triggered by climate change, have disrupted the country's economically vulnerable, which amounts to almost 80 percent of the total population.

Alok Desai, a day labourer in Delhi, witnessed the historic heatwave raging for six weeks now, with temperatures upwards of 49°C (120.2°F). April was the hottest month on record in India, a phenomenon driven by climate change, according to officials. Desai has been frustrated with both the weather and the local government’s inaction. 

"No one cares if we live or die, but we need to feed ourselves,” Desai told FairPlanet.  

Yogendra Sharma, a construction worker in the outskirts of Delhi, could barely stand the heat. 

"Due to the extremely hot weather, we are unable to work and our contractors do not pay us, but there is nothing else that we can do, we need to earn in order to survive, even if the heat doesn't kill us, hunger will," Sharma told FairPlanet.

Dilwara Begum, a day labourer in the capital, has seen an enormous landfill at her doorstep burning for over a week now. This has affected her more than sheer annoyance at a continuous fire.

"No one would live here if they didn't have to, but this landfill feeds my family. At the same time - it is killing us," Begum told FairPlanet.

Begum feeds her family of five by collecting scrap from the landfill and selling them; but since the heatwave set the landfill on fire, her only source of livelihood has come under threat. This forced her family to go to sleep with empty stomachs and to endure toxic gas emanating from a mountain of a decade's worth of urban waste burning right outside their home. 

Two of the largest landfills caught fire as a direct result of the rising global temperatures, and the blazes generate greenhouse gas methane. At the same time, there has also been an increase in forest fires along with an ever-increasing number of fire incidents killing dozens in major cities across the country. 

In a labour-intensive country such as India, close to half of the total population has to work outdoors. The recent record-high temperatures in the heatwaves have put the lives of almost a billion people at risk. Heat strokes have become the new norm, and have led to at least 380 deaths this year; this figure does not include unreported casualties.

India's poor suffer the most

"This heatwave is dangerous, because millions of people lack basic protection, they work outside, and if they don't work they don't get paid, and then they have to come back to a house that isn’t insulated," Somini Sengupta, an international climate reporter, told FairPlanet. "This makes the intense heat waves, exacerbated by climate change, deadly for the health and well-being of hundreds of millions of Indians."

Crop production has also been severely damaged, which lead to a higher demand of food grains throughout the country. The blisteringly high temperatures are also responsible for school closures and landfill fires, all of which are leading to an economic disruption, largely affecting the poorest strata of the country. 

On 19 May, India’s Rajasthan recorded the highest temperature of 51°C in 122 years, which can cause heat strokes and even deaths in humans. A human body can survive a wet bulb temperature of a maximum of 35°C (95°F) - which can be pushed to a dangerous level with high humidity.  

a silent killer

Also due to global warming, many of India's riverbeds have dried up, which is leading to a rampant water crisis across various cities.

The unprecedented rise in temperatures has also led to a surge in electricity demand. Since India uses mainly coal to generate power, an ongoing shortage of coal in the nation, combined with the sharp spike in demand - a power crisis is affecting communities across the country. 

Anita Singh, a shopkeeper, told FairPlanet that "Even in this scorching heat, our only respite is a fan, but there have been hours of power cut, as opposed to in urban localities where power cut is a rarity." 

As the daytime temperature rises, jet streams - an area of fast-flowing air that significantly affects weather patterns - that flow over the Indian subcontinent become warmer; as a result of this - the nights are also dry and warmer.

This makes it impossible for labourers to cool down even at night after a day of intense work, which may cause heat strokes as the body temperature rises further. Government data from the last few decades shows that heatstroke is the most common cause of death among the forces of nature.

Dr. Sathi Devi, Head of National Weather Forecasting Centre, explains that heat waves arise when the maximum temperature exceeds the 40°C (104°F) mark. According to the climatology expert, days are monitored by comparing the current temperature with the standard temperature, which is the average temperature recorded over a period of 30 years for that particular day.

When the average temperature of a particular day is 4°-5°C above normal, it is considered to be a heatwave, whereas 7°C above average would be considered a severe heatwave.

The main reason behind the current unusual and early heatwave affecting India is the  decrease in the Western disturbances - an extra-tropical storm originating in the Mediterranean region which brings sudden winter rain to the northern parts of the Indian subcontinent. This leads to a clear sky and uninterrupted solar radiations that ultimately trigger extreme temperatures and heatwaves. 

"It is temperature, but it is a silent killer, especially for the majority of people working outside, the old and the sick, due to an increased risk of dehydration and their inability to cool down under these catastrophic conditions," said Dr. Devi. 

The Indian meteorological department has collaborated with the National Disaster Management Authority to issue colour coded warnings, guidelines and standard operating procedures - shifting the focus from what the weather will be to what the weather will do.

The authorities also intend to introduce longer forecasts, which can provide impact-based health guidelines and instructions. These can then be implemented on the ground to assist the most affected population. 

Image by Adam Cohn.

Article written by:
Rahat Touhid
Embed from Getty Images
Air-coolers for sale. India is experiencing a record-breaking heatwave.
© Anindito Mukherjee/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Embed from Getty Images
The heatwave has scorched wheat fields in India, reducing yields in the second-biggest grower and damping expectations for exports that the world is relying on to alleviate a global shortage.
© T. Narayan/Bloomberg via Getty Images
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