04/29/2022, 14.22
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Record heat in India poses serious risks for rural areas and the economy

by Alessandra De Poli

This year heatwaves began in March. Extreme heat makes working in the middle of the day impossible. Deaths are on the rise, but the government has little data to deal with the situation. In cities, the effects are mitigated by air conditioning, but the latter is part of the problem.

Milan (AsiaNews) – Last month India reported the highest temperatures since the Indian Meteorological Department began monitoring data 122 years ago.

This year, heat waves, typical of the summer season, began in March due to climate change, which is already affecting a large part of the Indian population, in particular workers.

In some cities, temperatures have reached 44 degrees Celsius.

A report by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released in February warned that India was vulnerable to extreme heat.

If the earth's average global temperature rises by 1.5 Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels, Kolkata could experience stifling hot weather at least once a year like it did in 2015 when thousands of people died across the country.

For humans, the danger increases when extreme temperatures are associated with high humidity, inhibiting the body’s natural ability to lower its temperature through perspiration.

To measure the impact of these factors, “wet-bulb temperatures[*]” are used, which record the reading of a thermometer wrapped in a wet cloth.  

Two days ago, West Bengal and Odisha saw wet bulb temperatures reach 29 degrees; if the wet-bulb temperature exceeds 35 degrees, humans can only survive a few hours outdoors.

Deaths related to extreme heat have increased significantly in the past few years.

In 2015, 2,400 people died from excess heat in India. Government data indicate that at least 6,000 people died between 2010 and 2019. 

Experts note that such figures are an underestimation.

Heat is especially a problem for outdoor workers in cities (where concrete traps heat), the homeless who sleep outdoors, as well as farmers and those who live in rural areas where the roofs of buildings are often made of sheet metal.

The poorest groups in society suffer the most devastating effects because they have fewer resources to cool off or do not have the opportunity to work indoors.

The economy is equally very sensitive to extreme heat. Many workers, such as rickshaw drivers, say they cannot work after 10 am and are forced to stop to resume in the evening, when temperatures drop.

In 2019, local authorities in Bihar imposed a ban on construction from 11 to 16 during the summer season in an attempt to protect workers in this sector.

According to a study by the International Labour Organisation by 2030 India risks losing 5.8 per cent of its working hours, equal to 34 million full-time jobs.

In 2017 India lost 75 billion labour hours, 80 per cent in agriculture, this in a country where unemployment is already a serious issue for the authorities.

The government response is considered inadequate by many, although some effective measures have been taken in recent years, such as awareness campaigns and early warnings ahead of impending heatwaves.

Scientists warn however that since temperatures will rise even more, more investment is needed to ensure adaptability and climate resilience. 

Despite declarations of intent made at COP26 in Glasgow, the Indian government lacks not only the necessary data to tackle the problem, but has cut the budget of the Ministry of the Environment for 2021-2022.

Some studies point out that most deaths from extreme heat occur in India’s rural areas, a sign that adequate socio-economic adaptation to high temperatures could reduce the threat.

Yet, excessive use of air conditioners could aggravate the problem if the energy used to power them does not come from renewable sources.

At present, 80 per cent of India’s electricity is still generated by fossil fuels, the main contributor to climate change.

[*] Wet bulb temperature is the lowest temperature to which air can be cooled by the evaporation of water into the air at a constant pressure.

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