Much of the Indian subcontinent was blanketed in a stifling heat wave last week, with five of the 15 hottest places on the planet located in India or Pakistan and the northern town of Churu hitting a high of 50°C (122°F) on Monday.
“The heat wave is part of a trend of rising temperatures in India,” the Washington Post reports. “Last year was the sixth-warmest since national record-keeping began in 1901; 11 of the 15 warmest years on record have all occurred since 2004. The frequency of heat waves is also increasing, a government minister told India’s Parliament earlier this year.”
As of last Wednesday, “nearly the whole country remained under a heat wave warning,” with “severe warnings for a swath of north and central India, including the states of Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh,” the Post states. “Earlier this week, the Health Ministry issued an advisory with do’s and don’ts for staying safe in rising temperatures. They included avoiding the sun between noon and 3 PM and refraining from drinking alcohol, tea, and coffee. The National Disaster Management Authority weighed in with its own tips: Cover your head, cross-ventilate your room, and try sleeping under a slightly wet sheet.”
Environmental researcher Hem Dholakia said the rising prevalence of extreme heat presents a massive policy challenge, and an action item for every city in the country. “Science as well as our subjective experiences has made it unequivocally clear that longer, hotter, and deadlier summers are poised to become the norm due to climate change,” he wrote last month.
One study found that the city of Ahmedabad, in the state of Gujarat, avoided more than 1,000 heat-related deaths per year with the action plan it introduced in 2013. “The city started an early warning system to inform the public about extreme temperatures, expanded access to drinking water, encouraged employers to change work schedules so people spent less time outdoors, and repainted roofs so they reflected rather than absorbed heat,” the Post writes.
Across the country, government figures show the number of heat-related deaths falling from 700 in 2016 to 20 last year.
A forecaster with the India Meteorological Department in New Delhi said moisture-laden winds were expected to break the heat wave in a few days. “But real relief will come only with the arrival of the monsoon season,” the Post notes. “Rains are expected to begin any day now in Kerala, on India’s southwestern coast, but will take several more weeks to work their way north.”
For now, though, everyday life in Churu has ground to a halt, with people staying indoors, trying to keep cool, and avoiding roads so hot that they burn bare feet. “I have lived here all my life but have never felt this hot before,” said local journalist HanumanVerma, age 65. “It is horrid.”