Northern India and Pakistan are experiencing an unusual heat wave. It is unusual for two reasons. First, because it has happened early in the summer, and second, because the last one occurred in 2015 only seven years ago, and such an extreme weather event is less frequent. Experts now say climate change will lead to longer heat waves and more often, affecting close to a billion people across the two countries.
The cities of Jacobabad and Sibi in Pakistan reached highs of 47C (116.6 F.) on Friday April 29, a record for any Pakistani city for this date. Sherry Rehman, Pakistan’s Minister for Climate Change has called this a “spring-less year” as Pakistan has transitioned abruptly from the Winter season to Summer.
She also warned of Global Lake Outburst Floods (GLOF). Such lakes form because of snow melt on glaciers in the northern mountain ranges. A heat wave can cause snow to melt fast, turning the lakes into sources of raging, catastrophic torrents that rip out everything in their paths.
Minister Rehman reminded her audience that Pakistan has 3044 such lakes now, posing serious risks for the downstream population. If all that is not enough, the dry heat she noted also causes the mountains to be vulnerable “to forest fires and sudden combustion events, which we struggle to cope with.”
In India, the average maximum temperatures for April in the Northwest and Central regions, of 96.6 F and 100 F respectively, have been the highest ever recorded in 122 years of record keeping as reported by the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD). India is also listed by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) as among countries worst impacted by climate change.
Agriculture is also harmed as heat stress for millions of agricultural workers reduces their efficiency — they are forced to take breaks to cool down. It clearly affects other outdoor workers as well, as for example in construction.
Moreover, heat stress impacts wheat yields. In The Punjab, known as India’s bread basket, the average yield loss has been 5 quintal or 500 kilograms per hectare. In Pakistan too, sizzling temperatures and drying water reservoirs are expected to reduce crop yields.
Higher temperatures, as might be expected, also increase power demand, sometimes resulting in power cuts that make it even more difficult to cope with the heat. In some places, intermittent power cuts of up to 9 hours a day have forced school closures. West Bengal’s Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, being questioned by reporters on school closures, warned that severe heat is causing some children to suffer nosebleeds.
The other serious danger is heat stroke, a condition where the body can no longer cope with the heat. It can lead to unconsciousness and a very dangerous rise in body temperature that can be fatal in the worst cases.
The Indian subcontinent has a difficult summer ahead, and the stark reality is that those at the bottom of the economic ladder suffer the most. The impoverished living in the open in India’s cities sometimes pay the highest price. The current heat wave has caused 25 deaths in the Indian state of Maharashtra alone, reports the Times of India.
Life has never been easy for the very poor … in India or anywhere else but such is our world.