Temperatures are slowly falling in India with the approach of the cool monsoon rains, but a heatwave that has left more than 2,300 people dead has raised questions about how prepared the government will be for the next one.
The issue has taken on added urgency as global temperatures rise, and the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has warned that India is likely to experience more deaths from heat.
The heatwave that pushed temperatures to 48 degrees Celsius during the day in hard-hit areas during the last half of May was the second deadliest in India’s history and the fifth deadliest anywhere in the world. It is unusual for a heatwave to be drawn out so long in India, but death from scorching temperatures is becoming increasingly common.
There was a 61 percent increase in the number of deaths from heat stroke across India between 2004 and 2013, according to the Delhi-based data-journalism firm indiaspend.com, which analysed data from the National Crime Records Bureau.
And yet the Indian government does not identify heatwaves as “natural disasters,” for which its National Disaster Management Authority can create mitigation plans and allocate special funds for rescue operations and other contingencies.
In the absence of leadership from New Delhi, some local officials have taken action on their own.
After extreme heat killed more than 1,000 people in Ahmedabad in Gujurat state in 2010, the city government tapped experts to help create a “heat action plan” that includes an early warning system to alert the public, extra emergency rooms for heatwave patients, stocking ambulances with ice packs and providing better access to water in high-risk areas.
But most other local governments in India have not yet made such preparations.
More than 1,700 people died in Andhra Pradesh, the state hardest hit by the May heatwave. The state government has classified lightening strikes as a local disaster, allowing it to dip into the National Disaster Relief Fund, but it has yet to put extreme heat in the same category.
Authorities were taken by surprise by the scale of May’s heatwave, said Dhananjay Reddy, director of the state government’s disaster management department.
“Normally 10 to 20 people died in a heatwave,” he said. “We had been doing our best to make people aware of the precautions that need to be taken. We had been issuing advisories asking people to stay indoors during the peak heat hours, but many people don’t take this seriously.”
The victims died from dehydration because they were subjected to unusually high temperatures for a prolonged period and were unable to maintain a normal body temperature of 37 degrees Celsius. And they died of heat stroke, which occurs when the body’s temperature rises above 40 degrees, putting vital organs at risk and causing delirium, seizures, and comas.
Most of the people killed in the two hardest-hit states of Andhra Pradesh and neighbouring Telangana were poor labourers or street vendors who could not afford to leave their work and stay indoors even when the temperatures were at peak levels, according to Reddy. He said almost half the victims were elderly.
Temperatures are still high in some areas of the country, raising the possibility that the death toll could increase. If it passes 2,541, it would become India’s deadliest heatwave and the world’s fourth deadliest.
The three most deadly heatwaves have occurred in Europe during the past 12 years, according to the International Disaster Database at the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters in Brussels.
More than 70,000 people died in 2003 in Europe, while over 55,000 died in Russia in 2010, and almost 3,500 died in Europe in 2006, according to the database.