Awareness remains low on how to avoid lightning strikes even as at least 126 people were struck dead during monsoon storms in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh
At least 126 people have been struck dead by lightning since June 25, when the annual monsoon reached the Indo-Gangetic plains. Bihar reported 96 deaths and Uttar Pradesh 30. Most of those killed were working in farms.
Thirteen people were killed in Bihar’s Gopalganj district, nine in Purnia, eight each in Madhubani, Nawada, Aurangabad and Bhagalpur. In Uttar Pradesh, most of the deaths were in the eastern part of the state.
The number of fatalities is up for dispute, says Sanjay Srivastava, an ex-officer of the Indian Army, chair of Climate Resilient Observing-Systems Promotion Council (CROPC) and the man behind the Lightning Resilient India Campaign. “The state government has to pay compensation to the victims’ families, and that may influence the fatality numbers,” he points out.
Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has promised compensation of INR 400,000 (USD 5,300) to the next of kin of each person killed by these lightning strikes. But in each case, the cause of death needs to be established through a post mortem examination, not an easy thing to arrange, especially in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Among all the states of India, Bihar has the highest deaths and loss of property due to natural calamities. A recent study by NASA shows eastern Indian states have comparatively high lightning strikes, particularly in May and June. In Bihar, 20 people were killed by lightning strikes in May as well.
Climate change connection
Rising temperature and humidity are potential causes for the increase in the number of lightning strikes in certain regions.
A study conducted by the American Association for The Advancement of Science (AAAS) in 2014 concluded that a rise in one degree Celsius in temperature contributes to a 12% rise in lightning strike frequency.
A warmer atmosphere is generally one with more moisture. The presence of more moisture leads to more intense thunderstorms. Higher temperature provides greater energy to the clouds creating a stronger storm. A stronger storm leads to more lightning.
What can be done?
A majority of the deaths were of farmers who were working on their fields when they were struck by lightning. It is likely that they did not have access to the warning sent out by the state government through text messages, broadcast over television channels or through letters.
Srivastava feels more ground level work is necessary. “The farmers did not get the warning sent across, and the only way they can be protected is by tackling things at the panchayat level and educating farmers.”
He also pointed out that the majority of the deaths take place due to people seeking shelter under trees. The campaign he runs has a poster warning against this.
There are other cheap and accessible means of prevention. A bifurcated 30-foot bamboo pole with a metal wire buried five feet deep in the soil, filled with water and a bicycle rim on top, acts as a lightning conductor. It provides a safe space of 2-3 acres.
Brick houses, especially those with lightning conductors, are safer than mud huts. Srivastava suggests that during a storm, people should seek shelter in brick houses if possible.
He also points out that people should avoid boating, fishing or being in open water during thunderstorms, as water bodies are vulnerable to lightning strikes, and water is a good conductor.
Odisha had a notorious record of deaths due to lightning strikes. See: Are rising heat and humidity fuelling deaths by lightning?
However, deaths due to lightning strikes in Odisha fell by 31% due to effective use of early warning, from 465 deaths in 2017-18 to 320 in 2018-19, according to the state’s special relief commissioner Pradeep Jena. This was after the Odisha State Disaster Management Authority put up six lightning sensors across the state.
A lightning sensor constantly monitors atmospheric electrical activity and based on that calculates the potential for lightning strikes in a given area. Using this, the government sends out warning messages.
“Identifying preconditions before a lightning strike is paramount to ensuring low number of fatalities,” Srivastava said. “This is only the first step, though. The state government needs to do more ground level work so that the process can be completed in educating the farmers.”