Pedestrians on a New Delhi street on May 30, 2024. Temperatures at a weather observatory in India’s capital city touched 52.9C (127F) on Wednesday, evidence of a worsening heat wave that also sent peak electricity demand in Delhi to an all-time high. Image Credit: Bloomberg

NEW DELHI: Extreme temperatures across India are having their worst impact in the country’s teeming megacities, experts said on Thursday, warning that the heat is fast becoming a public health crisis.

India is enduring a crushing heatwave with temperatures in several cities sizzling well above 45 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit).

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Animals collapsed, people jumped on water tankers with buckets amid shortages and government employees changed their work hours as blistering summer heat kept its grip on north India.

Although Thursday’s readings were marginally lower in Delhi than the previous day when one area recorded an all-time high of 52.9 degree Celsius (127.22 Fahrenheit), the region still saw temperatures touching 47°C (116.6 F).

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In Delhi’s Ram Manohar Lohia hospital, a specialised unit is busy treating patients with heat-related illnesses.

Equipped with immersion ice baths, the unit has treated eight heat-struck patients in the past week.

One person died Wednesday, medics said, with a body temperature that had surged to a fatal 41.5C (106.7F).

Among those admitted to the unit were manual labourers, most aged between 40 and 50, who work under the blazing sun.

Extreme heat helps push power demand to new record
India’s peak electricity demand set a new record as surging temperatures add to what’s already the fastest growth in consumption in any major economy.
The nation reported maximum demand of 246 gigawatts on May 29, according to data published Thursday by state-run Grid Controller Of India Ltd. That tops a previous high of 243.3 gigawatts reached last September.
Some power shortfalls have been reported across the country during evening periods — when solar generation isn’t available — though day-time demand has so far been met, according to the operator.
The surging consumption has forced the government to revive output at gas-fired power stations, boosting demand for the fuel by as much as 12% from a year earlier, according to Kamal Kishore Chatiwal, managing director at Indraprastha Gas Ltd.
“More and more gas-based generation capacities are coming on stream,” Chatiwal told Bloomberg Television in an interview on Thursday. -- Bloomberg

“Treatment depends upon very quick, very rapid intervention and very rapid cooling,” hospital director Ajay Shukla said, warning that the mortality rate for severe cases is around “60-80 percent”.

The rising temperatures hit the vulnerable the hardest, including those on the economic margins, experts said.

“When the individual is dehydrated, extreme heat exposure will thicken their blood and cause organs to shut down, resulting in death within hours, popularly called ‘heat stroke’,” said Vidhya Venugopal, director at Sri Ram Institute of Higher Education and Research in Chennai.

People distribute a sweet drink to children in New Delhi on Thursday. Image Credit: ANI

“We urgently need... action to protect exposed populations.”

Authorities said they are investigating if the 52.9°C reading in the Mungeshpur neighbourhood on Wednesday was caused by a sensor error at the local weather station.

Television images showed people chasing water tankers or climbing on top of them in parts of the city to fill containers amidst an acute water shortage that the government blames on low levels in the Yamuna River - Delhi’s primary source of water.

Worse this year

Along the river’s banks, women in shanties endured stifling conditions in their homes as their cooking stoves aggravated the sweltering weather.

“The heat is worse this year. We work like this everyday so we get into the habit,” said Seema, 19, who cooks for her family twice a day.

In the neighbouring state of Uttar Pradesh, a policeman used CPR to revive a monkey that he said had fainted and fallen from a tree because of the heat, pumping its chest for 45 minutes, local media reported, and Delhi also saw cases of heatstroke among birds.

As more people chose to order food and groceries by home delivery instead of venturing out in the heat, delivery personnel have been spending more time on their scooters and motorbikes, their employers said.

Demand for air coolers soared with temperatures in New Delhi hitting new highs. Image Credit: Bloomberg

“Order frequency has been higher during the afternoon when people are avoiding stepping out,” said Ateef Shaikh, a delivery fleet manager at a Swiggy delivery app store in Mumbai.

Zomato and its grocery delivery business, Blinkit, have taken additional measures to help delivery workers, including providing refreshments and comfortable clothing, their spokespersons said.

Blinkit is installing air coolers in the waiting areas of all its stores, the spokesperson added.

The extreme temperatures have also sparked more fires in several parts of the country, including in the northern state of Jammu and Kashmir, where authorities are using drones to monitor forest fires.

The country, which is nearing the end of multi-phase national elections, is not alone in experiencing unusually high temperatures. Billions across Asia are grappling with the heat and in neighbouring Pakistan the temperature crossed 52°C (125.6 F)this week.

Scientists say this trend has been worsened by human-driven climate change.

‘About survivability’

India is no stranger to searing summer temperatures but years of scientific research have found climate change is causing heatwaves to become longer, more frequent and more intense.

The highest confirmed temperature ever recorded in India was 51C (123.8F), in Phalodi on the edge of Rajasthan’s Thar Desert in 2016.

Khosla, from Climate Trends, described heatwaves as “the single largest threat to India’s well-being today”, adding that recent high temperatures were “proof that the issue is now about survivability”.

No relief comes at night.

A study published by New Delhi’s Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) this month said Indian cities were not cooling down after sunset as much as they had in the decade of 2001-2010.

It found temperatures then had dropped after dusk nearly 2C more than today.

“Hot nights are as dangerous as midday peak temperatures,” it said.

“People get little chance to recover from daytime heat... exerting prolonged stress on the body.”

‘Caused by burning coal’

Researchers say human-induced climate change has driven the devastating heat impact in India and should be taken as a warning.

“The suffering India is facing this week is worse because of climate change, caused by burning coal, oil and gas and deforestation,” said Friederike Otto, a climatologist at the Imperial College London and director of World Weather Attribution.

The world’s most populous nation is the third-biggest emitter of greenhouse gases but has committed to achieve a net zero emissions economy by 2070 - two decades after most of the industrialised West.

For now, it is overwhelmingly reliant on coal for power generation.

The government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is seeking a third term in ongoing elections, says the fossil fuel remains central to meeting India’s rising energy needs and lifting millions out of poverty.

“What we are seeing in India is exactly what scientists said would happen if we didn’t stop heating the planet,” Otto said.