Forecasts of increasing heat waves and below-normal monsoon point to a torrid Indian summer that will affect lives, livelihoods and productivity
The relief offered by an extended winter has evaporated quickly under the onslaught of summer, with temperatures soaring above 40 degrees Celsius in some parts of India. There’s worse to come, as summer this year will be hotter than the past two years and there are strong chances of severe heat waves in the next three months, the India Meteorological Department (IMD) said in a forecast this week.
“The April to June season’s average maximum temperatures are likely to be warmer than normal by 0.5 degree Celsius over most of the meteorological subdivisions from central India and some subdivisions from north-west India,” the Met Department said. The desert state of Rajasthan and many parts of western and central India will face more incidents of heat waves.
The warning comes in the backdrop of drought in many parts of India. More than 40% of the land area of the country is facing abnormally dry conditions, according to the latest update by the Drought Early Warning System, a monitoring platform developed by Indian Institute of Technology Gandhinagar. India has experienced widespread drought every year since 2015, except 2017, and pre-monsoon showers in March have been below par, IMD data show.
These conditions can worsen if the southwest monsoon – the lifeline of India that brings over 80% of the annual rain fall to the country – is deficient. The early indications are not encouraging. India is likely to see 93% of the long-period average rainfall this monsoon, Skymet Weather Services, a private forecaster, predicted on April 3. The IMD is expected to release its monsoon forecast in the next two weeks.
Heat waves have already started in many parts of the country in March. In Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, temperatures rose beyond 40 degrees by early March. Later in the month, an unusual heat wave affected Kerala, leaving four people dead and hundreds suffering from heat strokes.
Maximum temperatures were markedly above normal (5.1 degrees Celsius or more) at most places over Jammu and Kashmir and West Rajasthan and at a few places in Himachal Pradesh, East Rajasthan, Saurashtra and Kutch, IMD said in its latest update on April 4.
Since 2016, IMD has been issuing seasonal forecast outlooks for temperatures during both summer and winter.
Although scientists are yet to directly attribute the rise in summer temperatures over South Asia to climate change, anecdotal and historical evidence suggests that it has become hotter in the past few years.
Heat waves in 2010 killed more than 1,300 people in Ahmedabad city alone, prompting efforts to develop heat action plans. In 2013 and 2015, the country experienced intense heat waves that killed more than 1,500 and 2,500 people across the country, respectively.
Since then, there have been several more deadly heat waves, including the most intense in recorded history in May 2016, when maximum temperatures in Jaisalmer, a desert city in Rajasthan, reached a scalding 52.4 degrees Celsius.
The trend in heat waves is not limited to India but is occurring with increased frequency all over the world. Between 2000 and 2016, the number of people exposed to heat waves was estimated to have increased by around 125 million, as the average length of heat waves was 0.37 days longer, compared to the period between 1986 and 2008, according to the World Health Organization. See: Extreme weather pummels 62 million people
These trends raise alarm bells for the public health community as extreme temperature events are expected to be further increasing in their intensity, frequency and duration, the World Meteorological Organisation has said.
According to WMO’s latest Global Seasonal Climate Update (March to May), above average sea surface temperatures — partly because of a weak El Niño in the Pacific — is expected to lead to above-normal land temperature, particularly in tropical latitudes.
Even minor increases in temperatures due to climate change would lead to a dramatic rise in intense heat waves that could see many more people dying during the long Indian summer, recent research has indicated. See: Fatal heat waves to rise in India
India is ill-prepared to cope with unusually hot and dry conditions. High temperatures combined with low water availability could spell a crisis in most parts of the country.
The water available in 91 major reservoirs of the country for the week ending March 28 was 50.307 billion cubic metres (BCM), which is 31% of their total storage capacity, the Central Water Commission (CWC) has reported.
The situation is severe in southern Indian states of Andhra Pradesh, Telengana, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu. The 31 reservoirs CWC monitors in these states only have 23% of their live storage capacity. The situation is critical in the western region as well. The 27 reservoirs under CWC monitoring in Gujarat and Maharashtra have 22% of their total live storage capacity in the week ended March 28.
The capacity of Indian cities to cope with extreme heat is also limited. After the disastrous heat waves in 2010, Ahmedabad has put in place a heat action plan. A few cities have followed suit. There are now 13 cities in 11 states that have a heat action plan in place, but implementation on the ground is patchy.
When it comes to building smart cities, urban planners have a long way to go to factor in policies to fight heat stress, especially when migrant labour and people from the low economic strata are the ones most prone to it. Experts say that smart cities are not being developed in a heat-smart manner. See: India needs strategies to combat urban heat stress