How India’s heatwave is pushing the limits of human endurance

Dozens are thought to have died, schools have been forced to close and taps have run dry

People rest in the shade under a bridge
People rest under a bridge by the Yamuna River in New Delhi, India, on 10 May
(Image credit: Amarjeet Kumar Singh/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

“India has been in the grip of what seems like an eternity of heatwaves,” said The Hindu (Chennai). The punishment started in March; then followed the hottest April in 122 years in central and northwest India. Since then, temperatures in some Indian cities have regularly exceeded 45C, while parts of Pakistan have recorded highs in excess of 47C.

Dozens of people are thought to have died, schools have been forced to close, and taps have run dry. In late April, a landfill site in New Delhi spontaneously combusted, sending noxious fumes into the sky. Surging demand for electricity to run air conditioning systems has led to power outages lasting up to eight hours a day; crops have been scorched. And to compound the misery, “there is little respite expected” in the worst-hit areas until June, when monsoon rains should finally arrive.

“Heatwaves are common at this time of year,” said Sandhya Ramesh in The Print (New Delhi). May and June are India’s hottest months. But conditions have been uniquely harsh this year, thanks to a “heat dome” over south Asia – a lingering area of high pressure that traps warm air beneath it like a lid on a pan.

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In drier areas, surface (as opposed to air) temperatures have exceeded 60C, contributing to a sharp uptick in forest fires. But in humid areas, conditions have become nearly impossible for humans to endure, said The Statesman (Kolkata). Public health officials talk about “wet bulb” temperatures – measured by wrapping a thermometer in a wet cloth. These give a rough idea of how the human body will cope. In dry heat, evaporation lowers the temperature. But in high humidity, the water can’t evaporate, so there is no cooling effect.

On 1 May, the wet bulb temperature in Chennai, in India’s southeast, hit 31C, making physical activity dangerous. If it were to reach 35C, our bodies would not be able to cope. Even the fittest people would die in about six hours.

Clearly, we can no longer bat away the brutal realities of climate change, said Pratap Bhanu Mehta in The Indian Express (Noida). In 2019, The Lancet estimated 356,000 people died due to excess heat globally. With temperatures soaring, that figure will only go up.

Many Indian cities now have “heat action plans”, said The Economist. Work shifts are changed to keep people out of the sun; extra medical centres are opened; roofs are painted with reflective paint. But there’s only so much that can be done. Unless carbon emissions are reduced, “heatwaves will keep getting more severe and harder to adapt to”.

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