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Divided by politics, united by heatwaves

Why ever rising temperatures is a critical, common concern across South Asia.

As the world grapples with different consequences of climate change, one phenomenon has been taking shape in Asia over the past few years. The heatwaves. Every year, the summer months bring with themselves the scorching sun heating up parts of Asia to record levels. Even Europe saw unprecedented levels of rise in temperatures in summers last year that even led to raging wildfires in parts of France and Spain.

This rise in temperatures to high levels is not just a climate phenomenon now, it is a severe health hazard and a strong cause for concern in regions more prone to rising temperatures. When it comes to South Asia, the start of the summer brought with itself the same challenge, only more severe and intense this year. The average temperatures of regions in India, Nepal and China have been above 40C for much of April and it has become a human catastrophe as people are dying in large numbers while attempting to deal with the heat. Heatstroke has been a major cause of death among the people spending long hours under the scorching sun. A large crowd of people attending an official government ceremony in Maharashtra were exposed to the heat which led to the death of 13 people while about 50 to 60 people had to be hospitalised due to dehydration.

This map shows the regions that experiences temperatures of more than 45 degree Centigrade

Moreover, the health hazards caused by heatwaves and high temperatures are not just limited to human casualties but also will have a long standing effect on the economic development of the nations that are directly grappling with the rising temperatures, more so for the nations in South Asia. Countries like Bangladesh and Pakistan repeatedly recorded temperatures more than 40C in the past months and the phenomenon even extended to east and southeast Asia wherein Thailand recorded the highest level of temperatures of over 49C. Similar temperatures were recorded in Laos, Vietnam, Nepal and China as well. This level of heat is a very new experience for most of these countries, however for India, heatwaves have been a recurring climate phenomenon for decades.

As per the data of the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), heatwaves in India have led to the deaths of about 24,223 people since 1992. The rise in temperature continues to be more frequent and more intense as the years pass. As of recently, the Indian Meteorological Department also issued alerts for parts of northern and eastern India regarding soaring temperatures and issued advisory for people in the region.

However, much more attention needs to be paid on the multidimensional impact that these heatwaves are bringing about in the functioning of the countries with maximum impact. There is a strong climate-energy-economy nexus at play which needs to be decoded in order to develop a strong mitigation strategy for a situation that is likely to worsen in the coming months.

As per the report published in the PLOS Climate Journal by researchers at the University of Cambridge, more than 90 per cent of India is under direct threat of severe heatwaves and falls into the ‘danger’ zone. This will impact the developmental activities of the country with an overall reduction in its growth rate. Majority of India’s workforce works long hours outside and moreover the high level of poverty and homelessness in the country further adds to the number of people being directly exposed to rising heat. The people working in the unorganised sectors, the manual labourers are at direct risk of this exposure. The reduction in the outdoor working capacity for the workforce in India means a reduction in the workforce productivity and according to the study this is likely to cost India an estimated 2.8 per cent to 8.7 per cent of the annual Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

Apart from this, energy security is another important issue. Due to rising temperatures, authorities are forced to induce power outages in order to reduce the pressure on the existing energy grids. The rising use of electric powered appliances in Indian households such as the air conditioners has resulted in the heightened use of energy which can likely fuel an energy crisis for the country as well. All of this will lead to a strong hindrance for India towards the accomplishment of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the United Nations that the country has agreed to work towards. Goals such as the alleviation of poverty, hunger, inequality and diseases for the promotion of health, education and sanitation.

As of recently, India surpassed China to become the most populous country in the world. While demographics can certainly be a strong asset for the country, climate change in terms of high temperatures can pose a strong challenge in this regard as well. More than 90 per cent of the country’s population is to be directly impacted by the conditions brought about by these heatwaves. More so, the heatwaves also induce melting of the country’s glaciers which can create an unprecedented climate crisis in the long run.

The Indian government has been wary of the crisis brought about by heatwaves for some years now. The Heat Action Plan of the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) considers heatwaves no less than other climate disasters and suggests that they need to be tackled with precision. The action plan aims to work towards ground level implementation of its policies and disaster risk reduction activities with a strong impetus on the formation of state level action plans as well. There needs to be strong sensitization among the population on taking immediate relief measures upon exposure to strong heat which may likely reduce casualties due to heat strokes. Frequent studies on heatwaves in India to assess the situation on ground are also an important plan of action as proposed by the report of the NDMA.

The rising temperatures and frequent heatwaves have become a strong cause for concerns all over the world. They are not only impacting the livelihoods of the people but also becoming responsible for human casualties. Strong attention needs to be paid towards mitigation efforts, especially countries already prone to high temperatures such as those in Asia.


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