May 14, 2022
What It’s Like to Live Through India’s Nonstop Heat Wave
(Bloomberg) -- Large parts of northern and central India are bracing for more days of brutal heat, with temperatures forecast to hit 50° Celsius (122° Fahrenheit) later in the week. Hotter even than the searing 43°C heat on Thursday that scorched New Delhi, the capital city, while a teacher named Shyam Mahato struggled to keep students safe and hydrated from the school’s single tap.
“Heat is getting worse much earlier,” says Mahato, whose classroom is an exposed space underneath a bridge without air conditioning or even a fan.
No one in the city was untouched by the threat of last Thursday’s blazing temperatures. A Bloomberg Green reporter spent hours out on the streets to witness what has become an almost constant daily struggle to endure this long-running wave of severe heat. Aside from brief days of respite, extreme heat has afflicted a region with more than 1 billion people since March. That’s when temperatures in India broke a 122-year record. Neighboring Pakistan has already experienced 50°C.
The extreme heat wave across South Asia is a direct manifestation of rising global temperatures, an impact that climate scientists had predicted with certainty years ago. Poverty and proximity to the equator increase the likelihood of illness and death from unrelenting temperatures. While New Delhi’s growing middle class may have access to air-conditioned offices, shopping malls and cars, there are millions of migrant workers who make up 40% of its population that have spent these extreme days without any access to relief. Even for those who can afford cooling devices, the threat of blackouts from surging power demand remains a constant worry.
The problem of extreme heat that lasts for weeks on end will only get worse as rising levels of greenhouse gases continue to trap more heat in the atmosphere, and it will be compounded by the arrival of more people to crowded cities in India and elsewhere. India’s urban population is expected to double by 2050 — and so too is the loss of productivity from people unable to work in the heat.
What follows is an attempt to chronicle a day in the life of New Delhi in the midst of a climate-driven heat wave.
9 a.m. Temperature: 36°C | Feels Like: 39°C
Darshan Mukhiya, a vegetable vendor, walks barefoot along the Yamuna river on the city’s eastern edge, wheeling his 83-year-old father in a cart. They’re headed to update the elder man’s health records at a government office two miles away before he loses access to state benefits. The men set out early, before it becomes too hot to stay out in the open.
“We don’t know own a fan, let alone a cooler,” Mukhiya says. “What else does someone like me have to protect themselves?” His six children are spending the day at a public school where there are ceiling fans, but at home the only option for cooling off is to soak in the polluted river.
11:30 a.m. Temperature: 39°C | Feels Like: 41 °C
There are also no fans at the open-air school that Mahato, 51, helps run in the shade of a nearby bridge. Metro trains roll by overhead. The air-conditioned carriages are packed with people who might otherwise walk or cycle.
There should be 300 students at this free school, but many families have left the city’s oppressive heat for open spaces in the villages. The 50 children present are drenched in sweat, making frequent trips to the only drinking water tap available. “We shut down the school when temperatures go above 45°C, but that usually doesn’t happen until late May or June,” says Mahato.
Many children who live in cramped homes have been suffering from upset stomachs and even fever, he says, with cases of malaria on the rise as mosquitoes breed in the heat and humidity.
1 p.m. Temperature: 43°C | Feels Like: 45°C
It’s the hottest time of the day. Bhumi, 18, puts on a face mask made of Fuller’s earth — a type of clay that’s used as a local cooling remedy — the moment she gets home from work. Then she takes her position under a fan. She’s downed two liters of water in an hour, but it hasn’t helped ease the stifling humidity. “Heat boils and skin allergies have worsened this year,” she says.
Bhumi, her five siblings and their parents share an eight-by-10 foot room with a single window in a shantytown in southern Delhi. They cook and sleep out on the cramped terrace where it’s slightly cooler. The single fan isn’t much help, she says, and the power could go out at any moment. Her neighborhood has experienced at least two cuts every day.
Government data shows 25 deaths have been officially reported during the heat wave. But that’s likely a severe undercount. A study published in the journal Lancet Planetary Health last year concluded that as many as 700,000 annual deaths in India between 2000 and 2019 can be attributed to exposure to abnormal temperatures. Deaths linked to hot temperatures increased in that period, while those to cold temperatures declined.
Warning systems set up over the past decade have helped reduce deaths, according to Kamal Kishore of the National Disaster Management Authority. The meteorological department has issued a yellow alert — the second of four levels — for parts of New Delhi that include Bhumi’s neighborhood.
Traffic is as busy as usual on the streets outside her home. Almost every car has its windows sealed shut to keep the heat out. Fewer pedestrians walk outside, and those who do tend to dress in long sleeves and pants for protection from the sun. Popular outdoor shopping areas have been deserted as people stream into malls instead to enjoy free air-conditioning.
4 p.m. Temperature: 41°C | Feels Like: 43°C
Madhu is frustrated. The 62-year-old grandmother just received news that government tankers meant to deliver water to her slum in southwestern Delhi have been canceled. The settlement hasn’t been recognized by the authorities, and as a consequence there’s no tap water available.
“The heat has left us to the mercy of the water mafia,” she says, referring to private dealers who charge between 100 rupees ($1.29) and 200 rupees per 20-liter jerrycan. Today’s delay means Madhu and her neighbors will have to spend hours standing in long lines the next day to secure extra water. It also means lost work hours and forcing children to skip school to make sure their families get enough to drink.
Scientists have warned repeatedly that the poor and most vulnerable will suffer the most from climate change. “We need to keep this disproportionate suffering of those who have not contributed to global warming in mind when we talk about climate justice at global forums,” says Anjal Prakash, a research director at the Bharti Institute of Public Policy based in Hyderabad.
6:30 p.m. Temperature: 40°C | Feels Like: 41°C
Mahavir Singh isn’t counting on the evening to bring relief from the heat. He’s never experienced anything like this spring, where it doesn’t cool down at night. It’s too hot inside, so the 70-year-old fruit vendor has been sleeping out in the open in his cart. Temperatures don’t drop until somewhere between midnight and 2 a.m.
Experts worry most about high temperatures in the evening. That’s when lingering heat creates the risk of crossing a crucial threshold at which the combination with humidity prevents the body from sweating enough to cool down. Within a few hours people can suffer fatal heat strokes. With dense residential clusters and even denser slums, Indian cities are particular victims of what’s known as the urban island heat effect.
It doesn’t help that an increasing number of cooling devices are dumping residual heat of their own into closely packed concrete buildings that are good at absorbing it — making it harder for the city to cool down despite its abundant greenery. Vandana, 47, a social activist in south Delhi, says the heat in her low-income residential complex has become unbearable as more and more air-conditioners whirr.“Where is this heat coming from?” she says. “Maybe we humans are being punished for our greed?”
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