Crippling heat wave in India peaks at 50 degrees Celsius in Rajasthan's Phalodi

A woman covers her child in protection from the scorching sun on a hot summer day, in Jaipur, Saturday, May 25, 2024.
A woman covers her child in protection from the scorching sun on a hot summer day, in Jaipur, Saturday, May 25, 2024.

New Delhi | Temperatures soared to a searing 50 degrees Celsius in Rajasthan's Phalodi on Sunday, as a brutal heatwave swept through large parts of India, testing the endurance of millions, including those who stepped out to vote in the sixth phase of the ongoing general elections.

According to the India Meteorological Department (IMD), 50 degrees Celsius is the highest temperature recorded in the country since June 1, 2019, when Churu, also in Rajasthan, logged a scorching 50.8 degrees Celsius.

Phalodi hit India's all-time high temperature of 51 degrees Celsius on May 19, 2016.

The extreme heat affected not only the northern plains and central regions of the country but also the hills of Himachal Pradesh, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh.

Thousands of voters faced scorching temperatures as they stepped out to vote in the sixth phase of the Lok Sabha elections, held in 58 seats across eight states and Union territories, including Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, and the national capital.

Many stood in long queues without shade for extended periods. In some places, polling booths lacked water, coolers, and chairs for the elderly, exacerbating the impact of the heat.

Some voters even fainted due to the extreme heat and hot winds in Delhi, where temperatures exceeded 45 degrees Celsius in six locations.

West Bengal's Cooch Behar (40.5 degrees), Assam's Silchar (40), and Lumding (43), and Arunachal Pradesh's Itanagar (40.5) and Pasighat (39.6) recorded their all-time high temperatures.

Assam's Tezpur (39.5), Mazbat (38.6), Dhubri (38.2), North Lakhimpur (39.2), and Mohanbari (38.8) also saw record-breaking temperatures for May.

Official data showed that at least 17 places in Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh recorded maximum temperatures of 45 degrees Celsius or above on Saturday.

In Rajasthan, temperatures soared to 48.8 degrees Celsius in Barmer, 48 degrees in Jaisalmer, and 47.2 degrees in Bikaner, prompting the state's disaster management department to direct district collectors to make necessary arrangements to provide relief to people, animals, and birds from the heat.

The extreme heat will continue in parts of Delhi, Rajasthan, Punjab, Haryana, Chandigarh, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Chhattisgarh, and Maharashtra until May 29. The searing heat will also affect the hills of Himachal Pradesh, Assam, and Meghalaya.

A 'red' warning has been issued for Rajasthan, Punjab, Haryana, Chandigarh, Delhi, west Uttar Pradesh, and Gujarat, indicating a "very high likelihood" of heat illness and heatstroke for all age groups.

The IMD said warm night conditions could further exacerbate heat-related stress in Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Haryana, Delhi, and Rajasthan over the next four days.

High night temperatures are particularly dangerous because the body doesn't get a chance to cool down. Increasing nighttime heat is more common in cities due to the urban heat island effect, where metro areas are significantly hotter than their surroundings.

Akash Vashishtha, founder-secretary of the Society for Protection of Environment and Biodiversity, said that urban regions like Delhi-NCR become heat chambers due to land and surface concretisation, causing a heat multiplier effect.

The severe heat wave conditions in Delhi-NCR are not just typical weather for this time of the year but the consequences of extensively concretised land surfaces creating 'urban heat islands', which amplify the trapped heat in the lower atmosphere.

Incoming solar radiation, once reflected from the land surface, lacks open space to escape to the upper atmosphere.

The heat gets trapped due to horizontal and vertical concretised structures, significantly raising ambient temperatures, he said.

Vashishtha said immediate steps are needed to keep ground surfaces vegetated to absorb solar radiation and reduce heat reflection and radiation from land surfaces.

The punishing heat in India is straining power grids and drying up water bodies, triggering drought-like conditions in parts of the country.

According to the Central Water Commission, water storage in 150 major reservoirs in India plunged to its lowest level in five years last week, exacerbating water shortages in many states and significantly affecting hydropower generation.

Water levels in the Delhi stretch of the Yamuna river have dropped amid the sweltering heat, affecting water supply. The city also saw power demand reach a record 8,000 megawatts on Wednesday, with air conditioners, coolers, and refrigerators in homes and offices running at full capacity.

Severe and frequent heatwaves are further burdening low-income households, which often have poor access to water and cooling, and testing the endurance of outdoor workers toiling in the searing sun, forcing them to take frequent breaks.

Anna Walnycki of the London-based International Institute for Environment and Development said, "Low-income households have limited capacity to adapt to extreme heat because of poor access to water and electricity.

"Additionally, the design and construction of informal houses often mean there is poor ventilation and little shelter from extreme heat."

Experts say outdoor workers, the elderly, and children are at higher risk of heat exhaustion and heatstroke.

According to the World Health Organisation, more than 1,66,000 people died as a result of heat waves between 1998 and 2017.

India reported 3,812 deaths due to heat waves between 2015 and 2022, with Andhra Pradesh alone logging 2,419 fatalities, the government told the Parliament in July last year.

People are less productive during hot weather, and children struggle to learn.

Shyamal Santra of the NGO Transform Rural India said studies show that students perform worse in tests when they experience a 'hot school year' compared to a 'cool school year.'

"With 15 per cent of government schools in India not having a functional electricity connection and many being single-classroom schools, heat waves disproportionately affect rural educational outcomes," he said.

In the absence of adequate cold-chain infrastructure, extreme heat can cause major damage to fresh produce. Studies show India faces food losses worth USD 13 billion a year, with only four percent of fresh produce covered by cold chain facilities.

According to a World Bank report, India could account for 34 million of the projected 80 million global job losses from heat stress-associated productivity decline by 2030.

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