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No respite from heat

 Over 300 people have reportedly died in Delhi this summer. There is no respite in sight for the national capital this week as temperatures will remain high for at least three more days due to dry winds from the north-west, according to the Met department. 

“We are not expecting rain for at least three to four days. Last year, the monsoon reached Delhi by June 28, which mean it would only arrive by the end of June,” private weather forecaster Skymet’s director Mahesh Palawat said. In response, the Delhi government ordered all schools in the city to advance their summer vacation to May 11, providing relief to lakhs of school children from the tormenting heat. 

Meanwhile, in Rajasthan, the temperature is expected to cross 47 degrees Celsius on the weekend. Unlike last year, citizens will not get much relief from the heat due the absence of thunderstorms and rains. Akshay Deoras, an independent weather forecaster, hints at a disturbing pattern between El Niño—a climate cycle in the Pacific Ocean with a global impact on weather patterns—and the spike in death toll across summers in India.

 “In India, more than 3,000 people were killed during the heat wave of 2003, whereas more than 2,000 people lost their lives during the 1998 heat wave,” he observes. “At least 1,300 deaths were reported during the heat wave of 1988, whereas more than 2,000 people were killed during the heat wave in 2015. All these years were either El Niño years or the years following El Niño event.”

There seems to be no respite from searing heat. The ongoing drought and severe water shortage in many parts of the country have compounded the problem. Approximately 330 million are likely to be affected by these nasty weather conditions, according to the Indian government. Since India’s hottest months tend to be May and June, authorities are seriously concerned about a significant spike in heat-related deaths.

 Ten states are presently reeling under drought and water storage in reservoirs is at an all time low. 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 heatwave conditions between April and June this year.

 Every fifth day the forecast will be updated and early warnings sent. It is a process the IMD often uses for cyclones and cloud bursts. However, it will be impossible for governments to avoid fatalities. Suffice to say, many of the fatalities include labourers and poor farmers who have little choice but to work outdoors in blistering condition, with temperatures routinely exceeding 40 degrees Celsius.

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. Workers enrolled under MNREGA have been ordered to avoid the afternoon heat 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 unorganized sector and farmers are bound to suffer. A large percentage of India’s population still survives on daily wages. If these people don’t go out to work, survival becomes difficult. Missing a day of work for them will mean losing out on much-needed pay. 

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.” 

Even the government has admitted to this fact. “Let us not fool ourselves that there is no connection between the unusual number of deaths from the ongoing heat wave and the certainty of another failed monsoon,” India’s minister for science, technology and earth sciences, Harsh Vardhan, said last year. “It’s not just an unusually hot summer, it is climate change.”
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