Ratna Devi is one of a dozen casual laborers working at a small construction site in the southern part of the Indian capital New Delhi, where her job is to help prepare a concrete mix. The work earns the 32-year-old a daily wage of 250 rupees or just under $4 — money that she uses to support her 7-year-old daughter. On Wednesday afternoon, as Devi went about her work on the site, her daughter fainted while playing nearby. The cause? A searing heatwave that has kept the maximum daytime temperature in the Indian capital above 100°F (40°C) for over a week now.
On Wednesday, the mercury topped out at 111.2°F (44°C). On Thursday, with temperatures hovering around 109.4°Fahrenheit (43°Celsius), Devi was back at work and her girl was once again playing near the site. For days now, authorities have been calling on people to avoid going out during the afternoon, when the heat wave is at its most extreme.
Construction workers like Devi, along with the homeless and the elderly, have been the hardest hit by the heatwave that so far has led to over 1,800 deaths, the vast majority of them concentrated in the southeastern Indian states of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. Together, those states account for over 1,750 deaths. Deaths have also been reported in Delhi and other states, including Gujarat and Odisha, where temperatures earlier this week peaked at a sweltering 116.6°F (47°C). The heat is so severe that, on Tuesday morning, a local newspaper in the capital carried on its front page a picture of a pedestrian crossing on a main thoroughfare that had been disfigured, with its white stripes curled up, as the asphalt melted.
Already, hospitals in Delhi are “overflowing with heatstroke victims,” Ajay Lekhi, the head of the city’s medical association, told the news agency Agence France-Presse. “Patients are complaining of severe headache and dizziness. They are also showing symptoms of delirium,” he said.
In the west, reports of the increased severity of the Indian & now the Pakistani heatwaves have been greeted with cries of, why haven’t they installed air conditioners? Which kind of underscores the reliance of the developed world on machinery, which functions perfectly well in reasonable temperatures, but will pack up & malfunction in countries where severe heat becomes a commonplace occurrence.
Has India had heatwaves in the past? Of course, but what is concerning is the severity of this year’s heatwave. This could be the most lethal year for heatstroke in India’s history. With 1,700 deaths from heatstroke reported in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana alone so far this year, the death toll in those two states alone has already surpassed that of India last year. Overall this year the death toll stands at nearly three thousand. Hundreds of mainly poor people die at the height of summer every year in India, but this year’s figures are already nearly double the annual average.
“How do we cope up with the heat? We have to raise kids and so we have to work even though it’s hot. Otherwise what will our children eat?” said 38-year-old bricklayer Sunder in Gurgaon, a satellite town near Delhi. People across India have been plunging into rivers, staying in the shade and drinking lots of water to try to beat the heat. Scorched crops and dying wildlife were reported, with some animals succumbing to thirst.
Dizzying temperatures have caused water shortages in thousands of Indian villages as a result thousands of water tankers were delivering supplies to more than 4,000 villages and hamlets facing acute water shortages in the central state of Maharashtra, state officials told the Press Trust of India news agency.
Cooling monsoon rains are expected in the south before gradually advancing north. However, forecasting service AccuWeather warned of prolonged drought conditions, with the monsoon likely to be disrupted by a more active typhoon season over the Pacific.
Is this a consequence of global warming? Some would say that actually it’s got to do with the shortage of air conditioners, but then what would we know?