Large parts of India swelter under intense heat, 37 cities record temperatures over 45 deg C

Tourists at the Taj Mahal on a hot summer day, in Agra, Sunday, May 26, 2024.
Tourists at the Taj Mahal on a hot summer day, in Agra, Sunday, May 26, 2024.

New Delhi | People in large parts of India sweated through a deadly heat wave that tested power grids and disaster preparedness of states on Sunday while Maharashtra's Akola imposed Section 144 until May 31, prohibiting public gatherings.

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 heat stroke for all age groups.

Rajasthan's Phalodi was the hottest place in the country for the second consecutive day, recording a maximum temperature of 49.8 degrees Celsius. A day ago, the city hit 50 degrees Celsius -- the highest temperature recorded in the country since June 1, 2019.

The state has reported multiple heat-related deaths in the last three days.

Official data showed that at least 37 places in Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, and Madhya Pradesh recorded maximum temperatures of 45 degrees Celsius or above on Sunday, compared to 17 places a day ago.

Even the hills of Himachal Pradesh, a preferred destination to escape the punishing heat in the plains, also reeled under sizzling temperatures. Shimla experienced the hottest day of the season at 30.6 degrees Celsius while Una sizzled at 44.4 degrees Celsius.

At least eight places in Delhi recorded maximum temperatures above 46 degrees Celsius, with Mungeshpur and Najafgarh logging a sweltering 48.3 degrees Celsius and 48.1 degrees Celsius, respectively. Haryana's Narnaul simmered at 47 degrees Celsius and Punjab's Faridkot at 47.4 degrees Celsius.

The scorching heat prompted the administration in Maharashtra's Akola to impose Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC) until May 31, prohibiting public gatherings.

Establishments have been instructed to ensure adequate arrangements for drinking water and fans for workers. Private coaching classes should not be held during the afternoon, the administration directed.

According to the Central Water Commission, water storage in 150 major reservoirs in India dropped to just 24 per cent of their live storage last week, exacerbating water shortages in many states and significantly affecting hydropower generation.

The intense heat has already driven India's power demand to 239.96 gigawatts, the highest so far this season, with air conditioners and coolers in homes and offices running at full capacity.

With no relief expected in the coming days, experts anticipate that the power demand could rise even further and surpass the all-time high of 243.27 GW recorded in September 2023.

The mercury soared to a sweltering 49 degrees Celsius in Rajasthan's Barmer, 48.6 degrees Celsius in Bikaner, and 48.5 degrees Celsius in Jaisalmer.

In an interaction with locals, Rajasthan Chief Minister Bhajanlal Sharma said round-the-clock monitoring is being done to ensure continued supply of electricity and water. Leaves of officers and personnel in the electricity, public health engineering, and medical departments have been cancelled.

The India Meteorological Department (IMD) said severe heat wave sizzled parts of Rajasthan and Delhi, while heat wave prevailed in some parts of Punjab, Haryana, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, and Uttar Pradesh.

In Maharashtra's Akola and Yavatmal, maximum temperatures hit 45.2 degrees Celsius and 46.6 degrees Celsius respectively while Madhya Pradesh's Sagar saw the mercury soar to 46.2 degrees Celsius, Guna 46.2 degrees Celsius and Khajuraho 46 degrees Celsius.

The heat wave in May has seen several places across the country, including Assam, Himachal Pradesh, and Arunachal Pradesh, recording their all-time high temperatures.

The Met Office said the extreme heat will continue in parts of Delhi, Rajasthan, Punjab, Haryana, Chandigarh, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Chhattisgarh, and Maharashtra until May 29.

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

The severe heat wave condition in Delhi-NCR is not typical for this time of the year but is the consequence of extensively concretized land surfaces creating 'urban heat islands', which amplify the trapped heat in the lower atmosphere, he said.

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 concretized structures, significantly raising ambient temperatures, Vashishtha said.

Severe heat waves have impacted a large number of people in parts of India for three years in a row, affecting health, water availability, agriculture, power generation, and other sectors of the economy.

Parts of India saw record-smashing maximum temperatures in April too, with Kerala reporting at least five deaths due to suspected heat stroke.

Similar heat waves could occur once every 30 years, and these have already become about 45 times more likely due to climate change, according to 'World Weather Attribution', a group of leading climate scientists.

Experts say those working outdoors, the elderly and children are at higher risk of heat exhaustion and heat stroke.

According to the World Health Organization, more than 166,000 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.

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 per cent 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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