Some experts fear heatwaves are reversing the country’s long-term efforts to reduce poverty, inequality and illness
In 2023, India bid an early farewell to the winter season to face the hottest February since 1901. Maximum temperatures in the range of 35-39°C prevailed over many parts of Gujarat, Rajasthan, Konkan, Goa, and coastal Karnataka, breaking the earlier ever-highest record of 29.48°C in 2016 for the same month.
Heatwaves began as early as March and maximum temperatures markedly above normal—5.1°C or more—were recorded across the country. In May, the maximum temperature recorded was in the range of 40-44°C, with Jhansi scorching at 46.5°C. While weak monsoon winds are currently closing in on the Kerala coast, hot weather conditions will continue deep into June with maximum temperatures in the range of 40-42°C over central and northern parts of the country. Instead of rainfall, people are bracing for hotter-than-usual days with large parts of the country already having reported temperatures higher than average.
For more than a decade now, scientists have been warning us of the human-induced climate crisis causing irreversible damage across different regions of the world—the consequences of which can be felt with more immediate effect. A study by the World Weather Attribution group has found that the humid heat in India and other South Asian nations such as Bangladesh, Thailand, and Laos was made 30 times more likely because of the climate crisis.
In Maharashtra, 13 people died after more than a million attendees waited for hours in the sun at an awards ceremony. and about 50-60 hospitalisations due to heat stroke were reported on April 16. In the states of West Bengal, Tripura and Odisha, schools closed three weeks earlier than planned due to the heat. In addition, a large number of forest fires occurred during the same time in India. These extreme temperatures, combined with humidity, have led to a sudden increase in heat stroke cases, roads melting and a strong surge in electricity demand.
If the global average temperature reaches up to 2°C warmer than it was in pre-industrial times, the April heatwave could occur every one to two years in India and Bangladesh.
Changes in global temperatures and rising weather anomalies
The rising heat is driving regional and seasonal temperature extremes and weather anomalies have become a regular occurrence now.
The global mean temperature in 2022 was 1.15°C (1.02–1.28°C) above the 1850–1900 average. The ocean heat content reached a new record with 58% of the ocean surface experiencing at least one marine heatwave during 2022. The sea ice in Antarctica dropped to 1.92 million km2 on February 25, 2022, the lowest level on record and almost 1 million km2 below the long-term (1991-2020) mean. In addition, real-time data from specific locations indicated that levels of the three greenhouse gases —carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide—continued to increase in 2022.
In 2022, people faced the hottest April in India in the past 122 years, with temperatures consistently 3-8°C above normal for more than six days across several parts of the country. The year 2022 was also recorded as the fifth-warmest year in history, sharing the record with 2015, despite La Niña conditions.
There were a number of firsts, too, due to extreme heat—record-breaking heatwaves swept across China and Europe during the summer with more than 15,000 associated deaths, the devastating flood in Pakistan affected more than 10 million people, and significant flooding at various stages during the monsoon season, particularly in northeast India in June, displaced more than 4.7 million people in Assam.
The annual mean temperature of the world is increasing by 1.1°C from the average of the 1850-1900 period and the rate of warming since 1981 is more than twice as fast—0.18°C per decade. The average temperature in India in 2021 was 25.93°C, a steady increase from 2012 at 25.61°C.
A threat to India’s public health and livelihood
Heatwaves are amongst the deadliest natural hazards with thousands of people dying from heat-related causes each year and many more suffering other severe health and livelihood consequences. India has suffered over 24,000 heatwave-related deaths since 1992 alone, with the May 1998 heatwave being one of the most devastating as it claimed over 3,058 lives. The country is facing a collision of multiple, cumulative climate hazards, with extreme weather occurring frequently from January to October last year.
According to a new study, more than 90% of the country is at risk of suffering losses in livelihood capacity, food grains yields, vector-borne disease spread and urban sustainability. The extreme heat might put unprecedented burdens on India’s economy, public health, and agriculture, and reverse the country’s long-term efforts to reduce poverty, inequality and illness. However, the government’s estimate is 20%, assessed through the National Climate Vulnerability Index (CVI) which is largely believed to underestimate the impact that longer and more frequent heatwaves will have on development. Developed by the Department of Science and Technology, CVI uses various indicators to evaluate climate impact on India’s socio-economic features and livelihood, biophysical, institutional and infrastructural characteristics. But it does not include any physical risk factors from extreme heat.
There are roughly 1.4 billion people in India and up to 75% of India’s workforce depends on heat-exposed labour, at times working in potentially life-threatening temperatures. But the heat affects the poor and marginalised communities the most whose work requires them to be outside—farmers, street vendors, and construction workers, without proper access to cooling. Long-term projections indicate that Indian heat waves could cross the survivability limit for a healthy human resting in the shade by 2050.
This might leave a huge impact on the economy as well. A World Bank Report states that with heat-exposed work contributing to nearly half of the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP), India is extremely vulnerable to job losses. By 2030, India may account for 34 million of the projected 80 million global job losses from heat stress-associated productivity decline. And lost labour could put up to 4.5% of India’s GDP—approximately $150-250 billion—at risk by the end of this decade.
The full impact of a heatwave is often not known until weeks or months later, once death certificates are collected, or scientists can analyse excess deaths. The government has already done substantial work in terms of heat mitigation—they now recognise heatwaves as part of the disaster relief package. But there’s a need to strengthen adaptation measures and optimise the pace of these plans.
Heat action plans (HAPs) In India are developed to help people deal with extreme heat through awareness programmes, training for healthcare workers and affordable cooling methods. But they often remain out of reach for the most vulnerable people. A new report by the Centre for Policy Research (CPR) assessed 37 heat action plans (HAPs) across 18 states in India to understand how well prepared the country is to deal with heat waves.
The study found that most HAPs are not built for local context and have a simplified view with a general focus on dry extreme heat. Only 10 out of 37 HAPs reviewed seem to establish locally defined temperature thresholds, although it is unclear whether they take local risk multipliers, such as humidity, hot nights, and duration of continuous heat among others, into account to declare a heatwave. Only two of 37 HAPs carry out and present vulnerability assessments. They are currently implemented as a patchwork and require design interventions that account for group-specific needs as exposure to high heat and humidity can cause high mortality and morbidity.
Under the National Programme on Climate Change and Human Health, the Centre has taken certain steps to mitigate the impact of ensuing heatwave conditions across India. The India Meteorological Department (IMD) in collaboration with local health departments have started HAPs in many parts of the country to forewarn about heatwaves and advise actions that should be taken. The National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) and IMD are working with 23 states (prone to high temperatures) to support HAPs. The government has also issued an advisory to states to reschedule the working hours for workers and labourers across sectors while ensuring adequate drinking water facilities at workplaces, making provision for emergency ice packs and heat illness prevention material to construction workers, and ensuring regular health check-ups of the workers.
Meeting India’s energy needs
With the high demand for energy in various parts of the country, there is an impending shortage of electricity and rising prices in the spot power market. According to daily electricity supply reports from the National Load Dispatch Centre, an electricity shortage of 22.53 million kWh occurred on April 17, compared with a shortage of 3.30 million kWh on April 2. As a result, electricity prices in the Indian spot power market rose from Rs. 3.50/kWh ($0.04/kWh) on April 2 to Rs. 7.04/kWh on April 17.
The Indian government is taking steps to boost coal and gas reserves and ordering power plants to run at full capacity to avert a potential emergency crisis. The centre has asked utilities to not retire ageing thermal power plants till 2030, just over two years after committing to eventually phase down the use of the fuel. It has also directed power producers to increase the blending of imported coal to 6 per cent of their requirement until September to add up to Rs 11,000 crore towards power purchase costs for distribution companies in the first half of FY24.
Over 80% of India’s energy needs are met by three fuels—coal, oil and solid biomass—with coal still remaining the largest single fuel in the energy mix. Wind, solar and other renewable energy sources add to only 30.2 % of the mix. India generated 73% of its power from coal in 2022-23 and according to data from the Ministry of Coal, India’s coal production increased 14.76% at 893.08 million tons (MT) in the fiscal year 2022-2023. The Central Electricity Authority (CEA) expects this to go down to 55% per cent by 2030. A greater share of the electricity mix will be held by renewable sources, whose generation is expected to rise to 31 per cent in 2030.