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Heat waves are back

The Indian Meteorological Department has predicted a hotter than normal summer this year. Over the next two days, it said that eight regions will face heat-wave conditions: Haryana, Chandigarh, Delhi, Rajasthan, Gangetic West Bengal, Odisha, Marathwada, Vidarbha, Telangana, Rayalaseema, and Tamil Nadu. Maximum temperatures are expected to rise by 2-4 degrees Celsius over the plains of north-west India, by 2-3 degrees Celsius over central India and by 1-2 degrees Celsius over west India, Telangana, and Rayalaseema over the next two to three days. Last year, heat waves had killed 2,035 people, according to official figures. This year almost 100 people have reportedly died in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh due to heat wave conditions till Thursday while sunstroke has claimed 30 lives in Odisha. And it is just the start of the summer. On Thursday, the highest maximum temperature recorded was 45 degrees Celsius in Odisha. “The state has seen unusually high temperatures this year since February, and temperatures this week went up to 45.8 degrees C, which is the highest recorded in 100 years,” said P.K Mohapatra, special relief commissioner, Odisha. “Heatwave warnings have been sent out to the public, buses are equipped with first-aid kits and heat-stroke treatment wards have been set up in government hospitals and community health centres,” he added. Brutal heat waves are not unusual to Odisha.

From 2000 deaths in 1998 to 67 in 2015, the state government has made a concerted effort to reduce casualties to zero by implementing a concrete heat action plan. For solutions, the state government has looked to Ahmedabad in Gujarat, where the city’s municipal corporation has taken concrete steps to prevent deaths and injury due to prolonged and potentially lethal heat exposure. The Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation has sought to tackle this climatic menace with a comprehensive Heat Action Plan, which has been in place since 2013. The plan to tackle heat-related deaths will need the collaborative effort of key public institutions. This plan revolves around raising public awareness around simple steps to prevent heat strokes. These include provisions for drinking water, buttermilk, and any other hydrating liquid in public areas, besides telling citizens to stay out of the sun as much as possible. In consonance with Ahmedabad’s plan, the Odisha government has issued alerts for citizens to remain indoors during the hottest part of the days between 11.30 am and 3.30 pm. Among other measures, schools have been asked to remain closed on days when a heat wave is predicted.

In response to last year’s devastating heat waves, which claimed the lives of over 2,000 people in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, both state governments have come up with necessary action plans. For example, the Telangana government has started a mass awareness campaign that will use mobile text messages or Whatsapp alerts to circulate heat wave warnings, besides provisions for makeshift medical camps and public cooling stations with drinking water and oral rehydration salts. In addition, workers enrolled under MNREGA have been ordered to avoid being out between noon and 3 pm. But with hotter than usual summers predicted this year, public resources will be stretched to their limits. Despite the Telangana government’s best efforts, laborers in the unorganised sector and farmers without mobile technology are bound to suffer. Missing a day of work for them will mean losing out on much-needed pay.

The challenges faced by various state governments are complex. But in an initiative that is bound to make their jobs easier, the IMD has started to issue weather advisories for heat wave-like conditions between April and June. Every fifth day the forecast will be updated and early warnings will be sent. It is a process the IMD often uses for cyclones and cloud bursts. However, it will be impossible for governments to avoid fatalities. But if they consistently implement the simple measures announced, governments could avoid many deaths. Suffice to say, such heat wave action plans will become the norm. “Increasingly, research suggests that these will no longer be emergencies, but the norm: By 2050, the temperatures that are currently endangering lives in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh will be prevalent all over the country,” according to an editorial in Scroll.in. “Coupled with conflict over water, this means India is going to be an exceedingly difficult place to survive in for those who cannot protect themselves from the elements.”
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