Death Toll Rises As India’s Heat Wave Breaks Records

An Indian man rests near a dog under an over head bridge on a hot day at a wholesale market in Ahmadabad, India, Tuesday, May 19, 2015. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/AJIT SOLANKI
An Indian man rests near a dog under an over head bridge on a hot day at a wholesale market in Ahmadabad, India, Tuesday, May 19, 2015. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/AJIT SOLANKI

One year after India experienced the fifth-deadliest heat wave ever recorded, temperatures are again soaring to deadly extremes. Local governments are scrambling to address rising death tolls and dwindling water supplies.

The drought and blistering heat, some 20 to 30 degrees Fahrenheit above normal, has claimed 300 lives since early April. Towns on India’s eastern side have been hit with record-setting temperatures — 119.3 degrees in the town of Titlagarh, Orissa, which is the highest temperature ever recorded in that state during April.

Before monsoon rains provide relief in mid-June, India’s subsistence farmers will be incredibly vulnerable to the heat. They’re faced with a dire choice: stay inside and let the crops go to waste or work the land and risk heat stroke. Abandoning the choice altogether, thousands of farmers have migrated to cities in search of jobs — “often leaving elderly and young relatives behind in parched villages,” Reuters reports.

The suffering of these farmers has reinvigorated calls for the government to provide a social safety net. This week, more than 150 Indian leaders and activists signed an open letter to the prime minister expressing their “collective anxiety about the enormous suffering of the rural poor.” They called for the government to provide 100 days of paid work a year for the poor and unemployed.

In the meantime, local governments are running ads on TV telling people to stay indoors, seek shade, and drink lots of water. But staying indoors offers little respite for the one-third of Indians who lack electricity. Even those with electricity face the possibility of power outages, as the Indian grid struggles to accommodate millions of air conditioners running on high. In past years, some have found that powering their homes with solar panels is cheaper and more reliable than depending on a grid that goes down when demand spikes during heat waves, or paying to fuel a diesel generator.

“Drink water” has been a similarly difficult recommendation to follow. Two hundred and fifty thousand villages are short of water, as reservoirs have dried to a fifth of their full capacity. Some towns have run so completely dry that the government has had to send tankers of water for emergency relief.

Fires are another concern for local governments. On Friday, one Indian state banned daytime cooking, crop burning, and religious fire rituals after accidental fires killed 79 people. The maximum penalty for defying the ban is one year in jail.

The ban is unprecedented, much like the extreme weather, which senior officials and climate scientists have linked to climate change. “It’s not just an unusually hot summer, it is climate change,” said Harsh Vardhan, the Indian minister of earth sciences, last June.

Although it is difficult to link any single weather event to climate change, studies have shown that climate change is making heat waves more common and more intense. Climate records reveal that heat waves have already increased in duration and intensity, and climate models show that heat waves are “virtually certain” to get worse as greenhouse gases warm the planet.

Climate change seems to be exacerbating the impacts of El Niño, the periodic warming of the Pacific Ocean. El Niño causes moisture to move east across the Pacific Ocean, leaving India and Southeast Asia parched. It also boosts temperatures on top of the background warming caused by human greenhouse gas emissions — the heat also goes into the oceans, causing catastrophic coral bleaching events in the Pacific.

As average global temperatures rise, scientists say, these natural variations in ocean temperature are becoming more extreme — a disheartening prognosis for the 330 million Indians living in regions affected by record-high temperatures this season.