Sight Magazine – ‘Turdy’ heat: Millions at risk as India’s severe heat wave exposes cooling gaps

Noida, India
Thomson Reuters Foundation

As the scorching sun beat down on his fruit cart, Mohammad Ikrar dreaded another day throwing dozens of rotting mangoes and melons – a regular practice as India grappled with an unprecedented heat wave this month – this.

The 38-year-old doesn’t have a fridge, which means his fruit spoils quickly. At the end of the day, leftover produce is usually only good to be given to stray cows passing by.

Since April, Ikrar said he has lost up to 3,000 rupees ($39) a week, nearly half of his average weekly earnings.

“This heat is torture. But if I want to buy an AC [air conditioner] or a fridge someday, I have to,” said Ikrar, wearing a long-sleeved shirt and white headband to stay cool in the 44 degree Celsius heat.

Fruit vendor Mohammad Ikrar waits for customers during an intense heat wave in Noida, India on May 18. PHOTO: Thomson Reuters Foundation/Annie Banerji.

Heavy rain and thunderstorms in the New Delhi area early Monday brought scorching temperatures down to around 20 degrees, with Mahesh Palawat, vice president of Skymet, a private weather forecasting agency saying in a post on social media that the heat wave would not return “soon” to the region.

But temperatures are expected to rise to around 40 degrees later in the week, according to India’s weather bureau.

“I sweat all day, then I sweat all night. There’s no way to cool down properly. I haven’t experienced anything like this since I moved here eight years ago.”

Mohammad Ikrar, fruit seller in Noida, India.

Monday’s storm knocked out power to large parts of the capital – a problem Ikrar has grown accustomed to over the summer.

At home, he and his family experience power cuts for hours day and night, rendering the ceiling fan useless in their one-room house in Noida, a satellite city of New Delhi.

He sends his three children to a school equipped with air coolers for “respite” from the heat.

“I sweat all day, then I sweat all night. There’s no way to cool down properly. I haven’t experienced anything like this since I moved here eight years ago,” a- he declared.

Ikrar provides a snapshot of the threat Indians face due to a lack of access to cooling amid widespread power outages.

Nearly 323 million people across the country are at high risk from extreme heat and a lack of cooling equipment such as fans and refrigerators, according to a report released last week by Sustainable Energy for All (SE4ALL) , an organization supported by the UN.

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India tops a list of ‘critical’ countries, also including China, Indonesia and Pakistan, which have the largest populations facing heat-related hazards ranging from immediate deaths from overheating impacts on food security and income.

Temperatures in the New Delhi area soared above 49 degrees Celsius in some areas in mid-May after India recorded its hottest March in 122 years and an unusually hot April .

Temperatures are expected to cool with the arrival of monsoon rains in June.

India’s electricity demand has hit a record high with an increase in the use of air conditioning, triggering the worst energy crisis in more than six years.

But, like Ikrar, not everyone can beat the heat.

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A worker and her two children sit under a tree at a construction site during an intense heat wave in Noida, India on May 18. PHOTO: Thomson Reuters Foundation/Annie Banerji

Although almost all households in India have access to electricity, only a fraction of its population of 1.4 billion has cooling appliances, SE4ALL found.

As demand for cooling will skyrocket in the coming years, it will also add strain on India’s overstretched power systems and lead to a potential increase in global warming emissions, said Brian Dean, head of energy efficiency and cooling at SE4ALL.

“[This] in turn further exacerbates the risk of longer and more extreme heat waves,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

He urged the authorities to swiftly implement India’s Cooling Action Plan, launched in 2019, which aims to reduce cooling demand by up to 25% by 2038 through measures such as new cooling technologies and the design of buildings with natural air circulation.

Scientists have linked the early onset of an intense summer to climate change and said more than a billion people in India and neighboring Pakistan were somehow exposed to extreme heat.

SE4ALL found that Pakistan’s largest city, Karachi, along with many others including Mumbai and Dhaka in South Asia, are among the most at risk from inadequate cooling.

Farhan Anwar, a Karachi-based urban planning consultant, said the city’s poor were the main victims of the extreme heat, likely caused by the so-called “urban heat island effect” in which heavy concrete landscapes raise temperatures.

“Unplanned densification, car-intensive mobility choices and rapidly shrinking green coverage are worrying urban trends,” Anwar said, calling for action to boost green spaces.

In India, government data shows that at least 25 people have died from heatstroke since late March, the highest toll in five years.

The official number is just “the tip of the iceberg”, said Dileep Mavalankar, director of the Indian Institute of Public Health, a private university in Gandhinagar, in the western state of Gujarat.

Heat is a largely invisible killer that can be difficult to identify as a cause of death, he said, especially since it often affects the elderly and sick and can be caused by indirect exposure, such as the being trapped in small, poorly ventilated houses.

These indirect exposure cases account for about nine in 10 heat deaths, he said, with India likely accounting for only about 10% of the true total.

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A customer chats with an ice cream seller during an intense heat wave in Noida, India, on May 18. PHOTO: Thomson Reuters Foundation/Annie Banerji

Mavalankar helped implement South Asia’s first heat action plan in Ahmedabad in Gujarat in 2013, after the city saw more than 1,300 deaths during a heat wave in 2010. He credited the HAP with saving up to 1,200 deaths each summer.

The HAP, which includes early warning text messages on cellphones, has expanded to nearly two dozen heat wave-prone states and more than 130 cities and districts.

The plan also calls on people to seek respite from heatwaves in “cooling hubs” such as air-conditioned public buildings, shops and malls, temples and parks. For some, they can save life.

Both Mavalankar and the SE4ALL Dean called for wider use of “cool roofs” with reflective surfaces or coatings to reduce temperatures in low-income and informal housing.

From building heat-resistant homes to creating more green spaces, Mavalankar said quick action was needed to help the poor and vulnerable survive in a hotter world.

“Temperatures could rise three to five degrees over the next few summers,” he warned.

“We have to prepare now.”

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