A worker quenches his thirst next to power lines as a heatwave continues to lashes the capital, in New Delhi, India, Monday, May 2, 2022. 

Extreme heat in India spurred by rapid climate change 

South Asia is no stranger to extreme heat, with waves of varying intensities every year. But scientists say rapid climate change is making it worse. 

The World

A worker quenches his thirst next to power lines as a heat wave continues to lashes the capital, in Delhi, India, May 2, 2022. 

Manish Swarup/AP

On a scorching-hot afternoon in early May, shopper Jyoti Jain covered her face and head with a scarf and wore a full-sleeved shirt at a market in Jaipur, in northern India. 

She took all measures possible to protect herself from a severe heat wave that’s gripped much of India and Pakistan in recent weeks.

“I rarely step out of home these days, and even if I do, I make sure I carry my sunscreen and a water bottle."

Jyoti Jain, Jaipur, India

“I rarely step out of home these days, and even if I do, I make sure I carry my sunscreen and a water bottle,” Jain said, squinting her eyes from the sun through a pair of glasses. 

South Asia is no stranger to extreme heat. Heat waves of varying intensities occur in different parts of India almost every year. But scientists say rapid climate change is making it worse. 

A fresh spell of extreme heat began over the weekend with temperatures in many states crossing 110 degrees Fahrenheit

Related: Heat wave sparks blackouts, questions on India's coal usage

Jyoti Jain is one of the few shoppers at a market in Jaipur in northern India. She uses a face and head covering and wears a full-sleeved shirt to protect herself amid a severe heatwave that's gripped India in recent weeks.

Jyoti Jain is one of the few shoppers at a market in Jaipur in northern India. She uses a face and head covering and wears a full-sleeved shirt to protect herself amid a severe heat wave that's gripped India in recent weeks.

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Sushmita Pathak/The World

“Heat waves definitely are happening more frequently. ... They are more intense, their spatial extent is more, and [so is] their duration." 

Arpita Mondal, climate studies professor, Indian Institute of Technology, Mumbai, India

“Heat waves definitely are happening more frequently,” said climate studies professor Arpita Mondal, at the Indian Institute of Technology in Mumbai. 

“They are more intense, their spatial extent is more, and [so is] their duration. There is evidence in the scientific community that climate change can alter all of these characteristics and that is probably what is showing up right now,” she said. 

Related: A warming climate leads to more pediatric ER visits, study shows

Bearing the brunt of extreme heat

Back at the Jaipur market, most shoppers said they don’t go outside unless it’s absolutely necessary. Some said they order groceries online and work from home. 

But rickshaw driver Vishram Saini does not have that option. His day starts at about 8 a.m. and ends at sunset. His passengers include children taken to and from school each day. The rickshaw's interior has become extremely hot for kids, he said. 

As his three-wheeled rickshaw zips through Jaipur’s streets, it feels like someone is blowing a giant hair dryer in one’s face. Over the weekend, the maximum temperature in the state of Rajasthan where Saini lives reached 117 degrees. He said the heat makes him feel weak and dizzy.

Related: As Mexico's last glaciers melt, communities that depend on mountain springs scramble to find solutions

 Blue-collar workers like rickshaw driver G. S. Chauhan spend most of their day working outdoors bear the brunt of the heatwave.

 Blue-collar workers like rickshaw driver G. S. Chauhan spend most of their day working outdoors bear the brunt of the heat wave.

Credit:

Sushmita Pathak/The World

Priya, who works as a waste picker and lives on the edge of the Bhalswa landfill in northern Delhi, said she’s been experiencing similar symptoms. 

“We don’t have an option, even if it’s hot we have to work,” said Priya, who goes by only one name. 

Working in the intense heat has taken a toll on her health. 

Adding to her woes, a major fire broke out at the landfill, sending smoke into her shantytown that’s located at the foot of the trash hill. Too weak to work, Priya said she has been sending her children to scavenge for metal or plastic scraps. 

A waste picker in Delhi takes a quick break from work to fill up his water bottle.

A waste picker in Delhi takes a quick break from work to fill up his water bottle. Laborers, construction workers, delivery persons and other blue-collar workers have no option but to work through the afternoon when exposure to the sun is the greatest.

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Sushmita Pathak/The World

“Heat waves are especially difficult for blue-collar workers who have to work outdoors and specifically those who need to work during the afternoon times when the exposure is highest."

Avikal Somvanshi, researcher, Center for Science and Environment, New Delhi, India

“Heat waves are especially difficult for blue-collar workers who have to work outdoors and specifically those who need to work during the afternoon times when the exposure is highest,” said Avikal Somvanshi, a researcher at the Delhi-based Center for Science and Environment. 

“So, whether it’s construction workers, or delivery guys, or Uber drivers all these people are at high risk.”

At least 25 people have died in the western state of Maharashtra since March due to heatstroke.

Related: Drought, high temps in Somalia are pushing people to move to other towns

Landfills in the Indian capital New Delhi such as this one in the northern part of the city caught fire amid a severe heatwave.

Landfills in the Indian capital of Delhi such as this one in the northern part of the city caught fire amid a severe heat wave.  

Credit:

Sushmita Pathak/The World

A vicious cycle

Most of northern India and huge swaths of south-central India have experienced unusually high temperatures this year. As a result, electricity demand has surged, according to Somvanshi. He’s been tracking the relationship between electricity demand and heatwaves for the past four years.

“There’s a direct correlation and it’s not linear, it’s actually exponential. Every degree rise then leads to more ACs [air conditioners] getting on,” he said.

He estimated that in the summer months, almost 50% of Delhi's electricity demand comes from air conditioners and coolers.

About 70% of India’s electricity comes from coal and rising demand amid the heat wave has caused a shortage of coal supplies. To avoid power cuts, the government has prioritized trains full of coal and is dispatching them to power plants where supplies are running low. 

But burning coal releases huge amounts of greenhouse gases, which trap heat and contribute to global warming.

“In a quest to keep ourselves cool during these heat waves, we are heating the environment even more."

Avikal Somvanshi, researcher, Center for Science and Environment, New Delhi, India

“In a quest to keep ourselves cool during these heat waves, we are heating the environment even more,” Somvanshi said. 

A woman draws water from a common pump in the slum next to a landfill in northern Delhi.

A woman draws water from a common pump in the slum next to a landfill in northern Delhi. But residents say they need to buy drinking water separately because the water from the pump is not fit for drinking. Experts are warning of dehydration during the ongoing heat wave. 

Credit:

Sushmita Pathak/The World

The role of climate change

Heat waves are common in India, but this year is different, Somvanshi said, adding that “the nature, the behavior and the extent of heat waves has changed.” 

Extreme weather started about a month earlier than usual — March was the hottest March that India has ever recorded. Also, heat waves used to occur in smaller areas. Now, they are widespread, with sustained, high temperatures throughout, Somvanshi said. 

More research is needed to attribute this ongoing heat wave to climate change but one thing is beyond doubt, according to Mondal, the climate professor. 

“Most models are telling us the future is going to be warmer unless the emissions are significantly cut and if the world on an average is going to be warmer, you are going to expect more and more of these extremes in [the] future."

Arpita Mondal, climate studies professor, Indian Institute of Technology, Mumbai, India

“Most models are telling us the future is going to be warmer unless the emissions are significantly cut and if the world on an average is going to be warmer, you are going to expect more and more of these extremes in [the] future,” she said.

The extreme heat is also affecting crops, including wheat, which is particularly sensitive to temperature changes. 

“If you reach a threshold, then there is what is called senescence of wheat [or] aging, which results in crop loss,” Mondal said. 

Amid a global wheat shortage due to the war in Ukraine, India has been trying to boost its wheat exports. The heat wave has put a damper on those efforts and wheat farmers across India are reporting crop damage. 

On a positive note, Indian authorities have begun to track heat waves, according to Mondal. With an economy largley dependent on agriculture, the Indian government was mostly interested in predicting monsoon rains, she said. 

"It’s only recently that it has been recognized by our meteorological department that heat wave forecasts are also equally important, and essentially, are the preliminary steps towards doing anything about this,” Mondal said.