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Halfway to Boiling: Indian Heat Wave Sets Record Highs

Indian news outlets report that temperatures topped 50 degrees Celsius (124 Fahrenheit) in the northwest of the country and forecasters warn that heat waves are growing longer and more intense.

by Matt Smith
May 20 2016, 7:25pm

Photo by Raminder Pal Singh/EPA

Another deadly heat wave has wracked northwest India this month, driving temperatures in one city halfway to boiling.

The city of Phalodi, about 640 kilometers (400 miles) west of New Delhi, recorded a Thursday high of 51 degrees Celsius (124 Fahrenheit) — the country's all-time hottest, topping a previous record in 1956, according to Indian news outlets. Other cities in the state of Rajasthan saw Death Valley-like numbers as well, building on top of months of warmer-than-normal weather and a raging drought.

At least 300 people had died due to heat in April, and the number is only expected to grow, said Kim Knowlton, deputy director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's Science Center.

"That kind of extreme heat is not only an inconvenience, it kills people," Knowlton said. In addition to the higher risk of heatstroke, people with heart and lung ailments are under increased stress as the body works overtime to cool itself off. And people with kidney trouble can find themselves at higher risk of dehydration, she said. And while India has been rapidly industrializing, it's still largely agrarian and poor, adding to the risks its population faces.

"Not everyone certainly has access to air conditioning," Knowlton said. "Many people work outdoors. So we're really concerned about classic heat-related illness and death."

'When crops fail in India, people perish.'

This year's sweltering season follows a 2015 heat wave that killed more than 2,500 people. In March, Indian forecasters warned that heat waves are getting longer and more intense — and the periodic Pacific Ocean warming trend known as El Niño hasn't helped. The Indian Meteorological Department's seasonal outlook noted that the years that followed previous El Niños brought above-normal temperatures, including severe heat waves.

And it's not just India: At least three cities in neighboring Pakistan recorded temperatures of 50 C or higher on Friday, that country's weather service reported.

On top of that, the monsoon rains that provide much of the country's water have been disrupted, leading to a longstanding drought, Knowlton said.

"May is typically the hottest month, but it's a double whammy — a triple whammy when there's the drought," she said. "This really compounds the challenge to people in India, millions of them, who don't always have the economic resources to get out of harm's way."

Problems like those seen in the past two years are becoming more likely in a changing climate. Without action to rein in carbon emissions, India is likely to see a sharp drop in crop yields due to extreme heat, changes in rainfall and shrinking groundwater, the World Bank projected in 2013. More than 60 percent of the country's farms depend on rainfall, making them "highly vulnerable to climate-induced changes in precipitation patterns."

"When crops fail in India, people perish," Knowlton said. "It's not just a matter of economics, as it may be in other parts of the globe. These are public health issues. The more we can do to stabilize the climate and not disrupt it more via climate change, the better off we'll be."

Related: Record High Temperatures Have Already Killed Over 100 People in India

But if there's a silver lining to the few clouds over India, it's that Indian authorities are coming up with plans to manage these extreme conditions — and build resilience for a future where the dice are loaded in favor of more climate-related disasters.

After a deadly heat wave in 2010, the northwestern city of Ahmedabad, the local government started building up an early-warning system. When temperatures spike, the city issues public alerts, sets up more than 1,100 drinking water stations, and opens up cooling stations for people without air conditioning. Doctors and paramedics are trained to recognize heat-related illnesses, and community organizations are enlisted to get the word out about where to find help.

When the 2015 heat wave hit, Ahmedabad reported fewer than 20 fatalities, according to the NRDC, which is helping other cities across India develop similar plans, Knowlton said.

"The steps we take now and that many places in India are now taking to reduce people's vulnerability to this extreme heat is going to help people live healthier lives now," she said. "But it's also going to make entire cities, millions of people, more resilient to the effects of climate change."

"It's fantastic that India is taking this leadership role in making that happen for themselves, and we're happy to be working with them on that," she added.

Related: It's Already Looking Like 2016 Will Be the Hottest Year on Record

Follow Matt Smith on Twitter: @mattsmithatl