Mumbai: Even before the weather department issued heatwave warnings on April 1, 2019, on complete onset of summer, temperatures in March 2019 had soared to unusually high levels across India. Consider the following recent reports:

  • Kerala was put on high alert after 288 sunburn/sunstroke cases were registered in the state since March 1, 2019. There were four suspected cases of sunstroke deaths in the month and temperatures reached 40 degrees Celsius (°C) in the northern district of Palakkad, The Indian Express reported on March 28, 2019.
  • In Bengaluru, a city where the average summer temperature rarely crosses 26°C, temperatures of around 37°C caused dehydrated birds to fall out of the sky in March 2019, this report in The New Indian Express said. Other regions of central Karnataka--such as Kalaburagi (40.6°C), Ballari (40°C) and Raichur (39°C)--also reported severe temperatures.
  • Mumbai recorded a maximum temperature of 40.3°C on March 25, 2019, seven degrees above normal for the city.
  • High temperatures--above 40°C--were experienced in north India, especially in areas around the national capital region. At 39°C on March 22, 2019, Delhi dealt with its warmest March in nine years.

These events mirror those of the summer of 2018, which was declared the sixth warmest since 1901, as per a Lok Sabha (lower house of the parliament) reply on February 6, 2019. The annual mean surface air temperature across the country in 2018 was 0.39°C above the average observed between 1981 and 2010.

The average maximum temperatures during April and June this summer are likely to be higher than normal by 0.5°C over most of the meteorological subdivisions in central India and some subdivisions in northwest India, an India Meteorological Department (IMD) release on April 1, 2019, said.

With heatwave conditions affecting regions across India, 6,167 heat-related deaths were reported between 2010 and 2018. The year 2015 reported the most fatalities--2,081 or 34%, as per the Lok Sabha reply. (State-wise distribution of fatalities caused by heat for these years are only available for 2017 and 2018.)

Heatwaves and deaths

Among the five warmest years in India since 1901, 2016 (+0.72°C) recorded the highest average temperatures, followed by 2009 (+0.56°C), 2017 (+0.55°C), 2010 (+0.54°C) and 2015 (+0.42°C). Phalodi in western Rajasthan hit 51°C in 2016, the highest ever anywhere in India, breaking the previous high of 50.6°C recorded in Alwar in 1956.

Eleven of the warmest years in India since 1901 were between 2004 and 2018, official data show. “India has experienced [a] manifold increase in the human deaths during various heatwaves of years like 1971, 1987, 1997, 2001, 2002, 2013 & 2015,” Harsh Vardhan, ministry of earth sciences, told Lok Sabha.

A heatwave is defined differently for varying topographies: in the plains, the maximum temperature has to be 40°C or above; in coastal areas, 37°C or more; and in hill regions, 30°C or more, according to the India Meteorological Department (IMD). In India, heatwave conditions are usually experienced between March and July, with acute heatwave events occurring mostly between April and June.

High temperatures caused by climate change are affecting the lives and livelihoods of people across India, forcing them to adapt to new weather conditions, a six-part series by IndiaSpend shows.

Action plan

In 2013, the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation launched a Heat Action Plan for Ahmedabad, which the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) advised all states to use as a template for their own plans.

Key components included an extended seven-day forecast during the summer months, a colour-coded warning system for citizens, and a massive public awareness campaign. From 2015, the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) started providing five-day city-specific summer forecasts in 100 cities.

By 2017, 11 states--Odisha, Telangana, Bihar, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Haryana, Delhi and Uttar Pradesh--and 17 cities had adopted or were developing heat action plans. Extended forecasts were being provided to more than 300 cities, Vardhan said in an another Lok Sabha reply on February 4, 2019.

Heatwave deaths declined by 97% over two years from 700 in 2016 to 20 in 2018 due to improved forecast and heat action plans, another Lok Sabha reply on February 6, 2019, said.

“It is true that heat-health warning systems have played an extremely important role in reducing deaths,” Hem Dholakia, senior research associate at the Delhi-based Council On Energy, Environment And Water, told IndiaSpend. “These need to scale up.”

But fluctuations in fatalities can also be linked to the health of those who face the heatwave, he pointed out. “Imagine there is a heatwave in 2014 and the most vulnerable people succumb to it,” he said. “Those who survive are likely to be healthier and more resilient and can survive the next heat wave.”

“The biggest takeaway is that the extreme events we are talking about are increasing both in frequency and intensity,” Leena Srivastava, vice chancellor of the TERI School of Advanced Studies, had told IndiaSpend in an interview on December 4, 2018. “So, from a preparedness point of view, we can't look at historical experiences; rather, we have to be able to simulate what is likely to happen and then prepare. That is something that we have not been doing.”

The impact of extreme weather events also depends on societal changes, Dholakia said. “As more people move to urban areas, we have a large concentration of people in a relatively smaller space--so the impact of such events on people and the economy is higher,” he said. “The lived experience of people is also shaped by the way we design our cities. Shrinking green spaces as well as water bodies influence urban microclimates and urban heat-island effects add to the rising temperatures.”

Looking ahead

There are two prerequisites to address the rise in temperatures and resultant casualties, Dholakia said. First, limit the global temperature rise to less than 1.5°C, as advocated by the Paris Agreement of 2015. “More ambitious global mitigation efforts will translate into a lower probability of such extremes,” Dholakia said. Developing early-warning systems to anticipate and respond to such extreme weather events at national and local levels is the other measure that can help, he added.

“However, planning also includes plugging gaps in knowledge--developing a climate risk atlas for India, continual risk assessments and updating response plans--addressing gaps in capacity building at national, state and local levels and creating innovative financial instruments such as catastrophe bonds, insurance instruments and so on to absorb the financial losses and protect livelihoods,” Dholakia added.

(Mallapur is a senior policy analyst with IndiaSpend.)

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