Millions of Indians have been struggling under “severe heat wave conditions” for days and the scorching temperatures are expected to continue for some time.
Temperatures topped 45 degrees Celsius (113 Fahrenheit) in at least nine Indian cities, reports said Friday as the government scrambled to ensure power supplies.
The main summer months in India (April, May and June) are always blisteringly hot in most parts of the country, before monsoon rains bring cooler temperatures.
But the heat wave came early and has become particularly intense in the last decade.
Heat waves have killed more than 6,500 people in India since 2010, and scientists say climate change is making them harsher and more frequent in South Asia.
“This is the first time I have seen such horrible weather in April. Usually we are prepared for this from May,” said Somya Mehra, 30, as she and her family searched thirstily for cold drinks in New Delhi.
In the capital, temperatures have exceeded 104 °F (40 °C) for several days and are forecast to remain around 44 °C through Sunday, with the peak of summer heat yet to come.
Significant weather features as of 04.29.2022:
♦ Heat wave conditions: parts over western Rajasthan on 29-30 April with severe heat wave conditions on 1 May and gradual decline to isolated pocket heat wave conditions on 2 May . pic.twitter.com/6F1ZtfT805
— India Meteorological Department (@Indiametdept) April 29, 2022
‘The hottest summer in history’
India’s meteorological department warned on Friday of “severe heat wave conditions” in the country’s north, northwest and eastern areas as the vast nation continues to reel under what local media said was the “hottest summer of its history.”
As extreme heat continued to burn large swaths of India, offering no respite after its hottest March on record, it prompted a warning from Prime Minister Narendra Modi about fire risks.
“Temperatures are rising rapidly in the country and much earlier than usual,” Modi told the heads of India’s state governments in an online conference on Wednesday.
As Modi spoke, firefighters struggled to extinguish a great fire at the Bhalswa dump, a mound that rises above the northwestern edge of New Delhi.
“We are seeing more and more fire incidents in various places, in jungles, important buildings and hospitals, in recent days,” Modi said.
Among the hardest hit are India’s typically humid eastern states, which saw temperatures above 43C on Wednesday.
Schools in the eastern state of Odisha have been closed for a week, while neighboring West Bengal has announced summer school holidays starting next week, days ahead of schedule.
Record high temperatures in six West Bengal districts were at least five degrees Celsius above normal, officials said, and a lack of rain in the state capital, Kolkata, added to concerns.
“It rarely happens that almost the entire country… reels under (a) heat wave,” said hydroclimatologist Arpita Mondal of the Indian Institute of Technology in Bombay, on the Maharashtra coast, where she called the heat “unbearable.”
Climate change is “unquestionably” a contributing factor to the extreme weatherMondal said.
In February, a report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned of India’s vulnerabilities to extreme heat. For example, with 1.5°C warming above pre-industrial temperatures, Kolkata, the capital of West Bengal, could once a year see conditions matching those of the 2015 heat wave, when temperatures reached 44 °C and thousands of people died across the country.
Mondal’s research has found that urban pollution may also play a role, as black carbon and dust absorb sunlight and lead to further warming of Indian cities.
Amid scorching temperatures, power outages in five states, including Rajasthan and Haryana in the north and Andhra Pradesh in the south, were the worst in more than six years, according to an analysis of data from federal grid regulator POSOCO. by the Reuters news agency.
The states of Rajasthan, Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh imposed factory power cuts this week as consumption of air conditioning and fans soared.
The jump in energy demand has left India struggling for coal, dominant fuel used in the generation of electricity in the country.
Coal inventories are at their lowest pre-summer levels in at least nine years, Reuters said.
Amid a shortage of trains to transport coal to power plants, the government on Friday canceled dozens of passenger trains to prioritize supply.
While the heat puts lives and livelihoods at risk in India, the real danger comes when high temperatures mix with high humidity, making it difficult for people to cool down through sweat.
Such conditions are measured by “wet bulb temperatures” which record the reading of a thermometer wrapped in a damp cloth.
High wet bulb temperatures are of particular concern in India, where the majority of the country’s 1.4 billion people live in rural areas without access to air conditioning or refrigeration stations.
On Wednesday, cities in West Bengal and Odisha saw wet bulb temperatures of around 29C. Humans can survive only a few hours outdoors if wet bulb temperatures exceed 35°C.
Liz Bentley is Executive Director of the Royal Meteorological Society and Professor of Meteorology at the University of Reading. She says that the heat wave is affecting vast areas of several Indian states and will take a heavy toll on the health of the population.
“Just living in heat like this is a health hazard. So many people, there are about 1.4 billion people in India who live in rural India and don’t have access to air conditioning or refrigeration systems, and they sleep outside to try and stay cool,” he said.
“But even overnight temperatures are excessive. And the stress that that puts on our bodies, our bodies’ ability to work all the time to try and calm us down is obviously causing a lot of health problems.”