India reports first heat-related death this year

A labourer dies of a heatstroke in New Delhi as parts of the city record 52.9 degrees Celsius (127.22F).

Boys riding a bicycle cover their faces in Varanasi amid heatwave
India is no stranger to searing summer temperatures but years of scientific research have found climate change is causing heatwaves to become longer, more frequent and more intense [Niharika Kulkarni/AFP]

Extreme temperatures across India are having their worst impact in the country’s teeming megacities, experts have warned, as its capital reported its first death this season due to record-breaking heat.

Parts of northwest and central India have been experiencing heatwave to severe heatwave conditions for weeks, prompting warnings that it is fast becoming a public health crisis.

On Thursday, the Reuters news agency reported that the temperature in New Delhi reached a record high of 52.9 degrees Celsius (127.22 degrees Fahrenheit) in the Mungeshpur neighbourhood on Wednesday.

That reading may still be revised, however, as maximum temperatures in other parts of the city ranged from 45.2C to 49.1C, Reuters said.

According to The Indian Express newspaper on Thursday, the extreme heat recorded the previous day resulted in the death from heatstroke of a 40-year-old labourer from New Delhi.

India classifies a heatwave as a situation where the maximum temperature is 4.5C (40.1F) to 6.4C (43.5F) above normal, while a severe heatwave occurs when the maximum is higher than normal by 6.5C (43.7F) or more.

This year’s heatwave also coincided with the national elections, forcing many to endure the sun to be able to cast their ballots.

Due to the rising temperature, New Delhi’s Lieutenant Governor Vinai Kumar Saxena directed the government on Wednesday to ensure measures were taken to protect labourers by providing water and shaded areas at construction sites, and granting them paid leave from noon to 3pm.

Aarti Khosla, director at the research institute Climate Trends, told the AFP news agency that cities are more vulnerable to the heat due to the “compounding effects of urbanisation and climate change”.

“Expect a greater number of hotter days, prolonged dry spells and less rainy days as weather patterns continue to change due to increased human emissions,” she said.

Last year, dozens of people died in India’s northern state of Uttar Pradesh due to the extreme heat.

‘Single largest threat to wellbeing’

Khosla described heatwaves as “the single largest threat to India’s wellbeing today”, adding that recent temperatures in New Delhi and the surrounding region were “proof that the issue is now about survivability”.

India is no stranger to searing summer temperatures but years of scientific research have found climate change is causing heatwaves to become longer, more frequent and more intense.

A study published by New Delhi’s Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) this month said Indian cities were not cooling down at night as much as they had in the 2001-10 decade.

It found the maximum temperature decline was nearly 2C (35.6F) smaller than previously.

The highest confirmed temperature ever recorded in India was 51C (123.8F), in Phalodi on the edge of Rajasthan’s Thar Desert in 2016.

Human-induced climate change

Researchers say human-induced climate change has driven the devastating heat impact in India and should be taken as a warning.

“The suffering India is facing this week is worse because of climate change, caused by burning coal, oil and gas and deforestation,” said Friederike Otto, a climatologist at the Imperial College London and director of World Weather Attribution.

The world’s most populous nation is the third-biggest emitter of greenhouse gases but has committed to achieve a net zero emissions economy by 2070 – 20 years after most of the industrialised West.

For now, it is overwhelmingly reliant on coal for power generation.

The government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is seeking a third term, says the fossil fuel remain central to meeting India’s rising energy needs and lifting millions out of poverty.

A man uses a newspaper as others use umbrellas to protect themselves from the heat as they wait to vote outside a polling station during the fifth phase of India’s general election in Howrah district of the eastern state of West Bengal, India, May 20, 2024. REUTERS/Sahiba Chawdhary
This year’s heatwave also coincided with the national elections, forcing many endure the sun to be able to cast their ballots [File: Sahiba Chawdhary/Reuters]
Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies