Millions of Indians are experiencing a brutal heatwave that is throwing lives and livelihoods out of gear – and there is no relief in sight.
“Temperatures are rising rapidly in the country, and rising much earlier than usual,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi told state chief ministers on Wednesday.
The India Meteorological Department (IMD) has forecast a gradual rise in maximum temperatures by 2-4C over most parts of north-western and central India this week, with “no large change thereafter”.
While heatwaves are common in India, especially in May and June, summer began early this year with high temperatures from March itself – average maximum temperatures in the month were the highest in 122 years. Heatwaves also began setting in during the month.
The Centre for Science and Environment, a think-tank, says that early heatwaves this year have affected around 15 states, including the northern state of Himachal Pradesh, known for its pleasant temperatures.
This week, the mercury in the capital, Delhi, is expected to cross 44C.
Naresh Kumar, a senior scientist at IMD, attributes the current heatwave to local atmospheric factors.
The major one was weak western disturbances – storms originating in the Mediterranean region – which meant little pre-monsoon rainfall in north-western and central India. Anticyclones – an area of high atmospheric pressure where the air sinks – also led to hot, dry weather over parts of western India in March.
The effects are visible. Farmers say the unexpected temperature spikes have affected their wheat harvest, a development that could potentially have global consequences given supply disruptions due to the Ukraine war.
The heat has also triggered an increase in power demand, leading to outages in many states and fears of a coal shortage.
Modi also flagged the increased risk of fires due to rising temperatures.
Summers have always been gruelling in many parts of India – especially in the northern and central regions. Even before air-conditioners and water coolers started selling in the millions, people had devised their own ways of coping with the heat – from keeping water cool in earthen jugs to rubbing raw mangoes on their bodies to ward off heat strokes.
But many experts say India is now recording more intense, frequent heatwaves that are also longer in duration.
Roxy Mathew Koll, a climate scientist at the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology, agrees that several atmospheric factors have led to the current heatwave. But adding to all that, he says, is global warming.
“That’s the root cause for the increase in heatwaves,” he says, adding that more research is needed to link climate change to other, less extreme weather fluctuations. (BBC)