The million dollar question — what can soothe Indians from blistering heatwaves?

The suffering due to the heatwaves will be over in a month or so but its memory should be preserved throughout the year. This will hopefully motivate us to take better care of our environment.

Since the beginning of May, Indians have been suffering heat stroke due to the dramatic rise in temperatures across northern India. 

Temperatures up to 45 degrees Celsius have been recorded since May 15 in most parts of Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, Delhi, Chandigarh, western parts of  Uttar Pradesh, and Gujarat. On May 25, 50 degrees Celsius was recorded in Rajasthan’s Philaudi and on May 27, 48.4 degrees Celsius was recorded in Punjab’s Bathinda.  

Alarmingly, the temperature in Bathinda city was 7.1 degrees Celsius above normal. According to the IMD, Delhi has witnessed a constant increase of 2.5 degrees Celsius in night temperatures and five degrees Celsius in day temperatures due to severe heatwaves. People are being warned not to venture out in direct sunlight from 10AM-3 PM. In Punjab, summer vacations have been preponed for schools. 

The north-western states used to experience heatwaves in the summer, but now with an adversely changing climate, their arrival, frequency, duration, and intensity are rapidly increasing. 

 According to IMD, only 17 states of the country experienced heatwaves till 2015, but in 2024 the number has soared to 23. Now, the states of Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Arunachal Pradesh, and the Union Territory of Jammu & Kashmir have also started to suffer from heatwaves.

All this didn’t happen overnight.

Scientists have been warning about it for several decades. In 2022, the increase in temperature in April broke the previous 122-year record. From June 2023 to May 2024, consecutive 12 months have been the hottest on record. The year 2023 is also recorded to be the hottest year so far. 

According to the Copernicus Climate Change Service, Earth’s average temperature in 2023 is 1.48 degrees higher than the temperatures prior to the industrial revolution. In 2023, the surface temperatures of the Indian, the Pacific and the Atlantic oceans were also higher than the average. According to a study published in the journal Science Direct in April 2024, the Indian Ocean is warming faster than the rest of the oceans.

 Its temperature may increase by 1.7 to 3.8 degrees Celsius in the period 2020-2100, which may also lead to long-lasting marine heatwaves. An increase in the surface temperature of the Indian Ocean will lead to a rapid increase in all kinds of natural calamities.

The El Nino angle

Along with climate change, the El  Nino phenomenon is also responsible for the rise in India’s temperature this year. In El Nino years, monsoon winds bring less rainfall in India leading to drought conditions in many parts of the country. The El Nino phenomenon started in June, 2023. The effect of El Nino usually lasts for 9-12 months. 

Increase in temperatures also affects food crops. Drought-like conditions have risen in some areas of Maharashtra. The apple production in hilly areas is also hampered. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, an increase of a degree Celsius in temperature can reduce maize production by 25 to 70 per cent and paddy production by 10 to 30 per cent.

As a result, this will lead to food shortages and farmers’s income will fall further. Inflation is expected to shoot up due to shortage of food grains. Food grains will be out of reach of the poor leading to increased malnutrition and starvation deaths.

As much as the increase in temperature has an effect on humans, it also has a negative effect on animals. The news of animals dying due to lack of fodder and water is also emanating from Rajasthan. 

Melting glaciers — a ticking time bomb 

The increase in temperatures is causing Himalayan glaciers to melt faster which increases the risk of glacial lakes bursting due to the rapid increase in size. 

According to a study by the Indian Space Research Organization, one out of four Himalayan glacial lakes is more than 10 hectares in size. About 89 per cent of these large lakes have doubled in size since 1984.

These lakes can burst at any time and flood hilly areas as well as the plains. In October 2023, the Lhonak Glacial lake in Sikkim burst causing severe floods and considerable loss of life and property.

Along with climate change and El Nino, there are some local reasons for the increase in temperature and heatwaves in India as well. 

So how to win the war against incoming heatwaves? 

In order to get rid of the rise in temperature and heatwaves, the Union and the state governments should take some immediate action and also formulate long-term plans. 

In addition to changes in  the modes of transportation, lifestyle, and public consumption, the materials used for the construction of buildings should also be sustainable as per local conditions. To reduce greenhouse gas emissions from transportation, there is a need to rapidly switch to public transportation. 

Along with an increase in the area under forests, there should be a complete ban on the cutting of dense forests. Also, the plantation of local trees should be preferred over commercial varieties. 

The temperatures are rising faster in the hilly states of the country than in other regions due to which the glaciers are melting at a faster pace. Therefore, non-essential constructions should be banned in the hilly regions. The construction of multi-purpose projects on the rivers should also be checked. In order to protect coastal areas from the effects of temperature rise, the state governments should protect coastal vegetation as a natural disaster buffer that protects these areas and the people living there from natural calamities.

Also, instead of glass and concrete buildings, buildings should be constructed according to local requirements and locally available resources. Above all, the government should also abide by the promises made at the international level to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases.

The author is a former Professor from the  Department of Geography, Punjabi University, Patiala.

Views expressed are the author’s own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth

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