Fiddling While India’s Workers Burn
More frequent and intense heat waves are poised to become bigger killers in the Indian subcontinent than the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. But the government is essentially leaving people to fend for themselves in a foreseeable tragedy, and envisages continued investment in fossil fuels for decades to come.
NEW DELHI – Kim Stanley Robinson’s prescient science-fiction novel The Ministry for the Future begins with a stark description of a major heat wave in a northern Indian city that kills millions of people. The novel is set some decades in the future. But, with people across northern and central India and Pakistan suffering an unprecedented heat wave since late March, it seems terrifyingly current.
In April, usually a time of late spring weather with average maximum temperatures of at most 35° Celsius (95° Fahrenheit), daytime temperatures in New Delhi exceeded 46°C. Temperatures in many places in the region have hovered around 45°C for two months, reaching 49°C in Jacobabad, Pakistan, on April 30, and 47.2°C in Banda in central India. This was the hottest April weather in at least 120 years.
Although the heat has abated slightly since the start of May, the region’s hot season has barely begun. Meteorologists are already predicting that, partly owing to less rainfall than usual in this period, temperatures will rise above 50°C across much of South Asia as summer sets in. The effects can be lethal, because the combination of extreme heat and high humidity can prevent sweat from evaporating, reducing the body’s ability to cool down.