Climate change, South Asia in the grasp of heat

Air Pollution

Heatwaves are burning India and Pakistan this week, breaking all records, as countries enter the hottest time of the year. Some states in India have seen temperatures above 43 ° C, with north-west India likely to see even more sustained heat spikes in the coming days, at least according to the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD).

Extreme heat can be deadly, especially for an area where many do not have access to air conditioners. Additionally, climate change is making heat waves more frequent and severe, with periods of hot days extending longer in places like South Asia.

This heat wave is particularly worrying for its timing and its spread, says Arpita Mondal, a climate researcher at the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay. Usually, the highest temperatures in the region occur in May and June, just before the monsoon rains bring relief, she explains, but this year’s March was the warmest on record, with an average temperature of 33. 1 ° C.

The problem is also widespread in the rest of the country, affecting not only the classic hot spots in the north-west and south-east, but also regions that are not used to withstanding such extreme temperatures, Mondal explains. And the effects are even more noticeable due to the lack of rainfall so far this season.

“This is all part of a larger picture of climate change,” says Amir AghaKouchak, a climate researcher at the University of California, Irvine. According to data from the World Bank, India’s average annual temperature increased at a rate of 0.62 ° C every 100 years between 1901 and 2020. And maximum temperatures increased even more rapidly, at a rate of 0. , 99 ° C every 100 years.

“People think a degree or two may not matter,” AghaKouchak says, but when average temperatures rise even by small amounts, it means that extreme events are becoming more likely. It can sometimes be difficult to anticipate the effects of climate change on climate, but for heat waves, researchers have “clear data” that climate change is making the problem worse, AghaKouchak says.

Heat can have devastating impacts on human health: 356,000 deaths worldwide in 2019 were linked to extreme heat. The risk is greatest for the elderly and children, but anyone who does not have adequate access to cooling systems can be affected, especially if the heat continues for days without diminishing at night. Forecasting and early warning systems can help people prepare for extreme heat. For this reason, the IMD has begun to focus on forecasting heat waves in recent years, Mondal explains.

However, the reality of a developing country means that many people will continue to be in danger during the heatwaves in India. In 2019, only about 7 percent of Indian households had an air conditioner. And staying indoors when temperatures peak may not be an option for people who are dependent on income from daily work, Mondal says.

When is it too hot for the human body? Climate change is testing people’s limits. Some local governments are looking for solutions. Ahmedabad, a city in western India, experienced a particularly devastating heat wave in May 2010: the official death toll reached 800 direct people and 1,300 indirect deaths. In 2013, the city launched an action plan to combat heating, which included early warning systems for residents, training for health workers and initiatives to cool buildings naturally.

However, the reality of a developing country means that many people will continue to be in danger during the heatwaves in India. In 2019, only about 7 percent of Indian households had an air conditioner. And staying indoors when temperatures peak may not be an option for people who are dependent on income from daily work, Mondal says.

Since then, other local governments have followed suit and created their own plans, but some hope to see nationwide interventions to help people adapt to the heat, Mondal says. Reducing emissions will help prevent worst future warming scenarios, but the current reality is already hard for many to bear.

“Here are 1.4 billion people who will be affected by this heat wave, most of whom have contributed very little to global warming,” Mondal concludes. “This ‘injustice’ should cause global concern about climate change”.

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