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Scorching summers: India’s struggle with heatwaves and Climate Change



Scorching summers: India's struggle with heatwaves and Climate Change

Words by Aradhana Jebalia

As summer temperatures soar across India, the nation finds itself grappling with an alarming reality – the intensifying scourge of heatwaves. These extreme weather events, once considered anomalies, are now becoming frighteningly frequent, casting a searing spotlight on the consequences of climate change.

The past year alone witnessed multiple cities across the country surpassing the 40°C mark, with some regions even reaching a sweltering 45°C or higher. The Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) has confirmed the worsening trend, with their findings revealing an undeniable increase in the frequency, duration, and intensity of heatwaves in most parts of the country.

The culprit behind this escalating crisis is climate change, a global phenomenon exacerbating temperatures through two primary mechanisms. Firstly, the 2023-24 El Niño event, one of the strongest on record, has directly influenced summer temperatures in India. Scientific evidence suggests that global warming is increasing the frequency and intensity of these weather-altering El Niño events.

Secondly, the overall rise in global temperatures, a direct consequence of climate change, has played a significant role. A recent study by the World Weather Attribution found that the April heatwaves were a staggering 45 times more likely due to the effects of climate change. 

In response, the IMD has taken a crucial step by introducing its first-ever experimental Heat Index, which considers the combined impact of temperature and humidity, providing a more accurate representation of the “feels-like” temperature. This move acknowledges the urgent need for a robust warning system as heat-related illnesses continue to rise alarmingly.

However, the consequences of heatwaves extend far beyond public health concerns. These extreme weather events also threaten agriculture and water availability, exacerbating the risk of droughts as water reservoirs evaporate faster and demand surges. The recent water shortage in Bengaluru serves as a chilling reminder of what Indian cities may face more frequently in the future, directly challenging the nation’s sustainable development goals (SDGs).

A study by researchers at the University of Cambridge highlights the severe impact of heatwaves on India’s progress towards achieving the SDGs, slowing down advancement and increasing climate vulnerability in many states. The situation in the nation’s capital, New Delhi, and its surrounding regions further exemplifies the urgency, as these areas rank high on the Climate Vulnerability Index. 

The impact of heatwaves is not limited to land; it extends beneath the ocean’s surface as well. La Niña, a global climate phenomenon that typically follows El Niño, is now hotter than the El Niño of 20 years ago, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). This means that even the expected relief from La Niña’s “cooling phase” may no longer be guaranteed.

A recent study titled “Future Projections for the Tropical Indian Ocean” paints a grim picture, predicting an almost permanent state of marine heatwaves lasting 220-250 days annually by 2050. The consequences of these marine heatwaves are far-reaching, leading to coral bleaching, reduced fish populations, and declining marine biodiversity, ultimately affecting the livelihoods of fishers and industries dependent on these bio-reserves.

As India sets its sights on becoming the third-largest economy with a $5 trillion GDP by 2026 and an ambitious target of $7 trillion by 2030, the challenge of climate change adaptation looms large. The Indian government reported spending 5.5% of its GDP on climate change adaptation in 2022, while a study titled “Loss and Damage Today: How Climate Change is Impacting Output and Capital” estimated the climate change-related loss of GDP for the same year to be 8%.

To truly achieve sustainable development and meet its SDG targets, India must prioritize investment in climate change adaptation measures that keep pace with the escalating impacts. Addressing heatwaves is just one of the many challenges the nation must confront as it strives to emerge as an economic leader while safeguarding its environmental future.

Aradhana Jebalia currently works as an independent consultant in water use, agriculture and climate change. She holds a Master of Science (M.Sc.) in Environmental Studies and Resource Management from TERI School of Advanced Studies, and a PGD in Environmental Law and Policy from National Law University Delhi and WWF. Additionally, she has worked on projects with IISc Centre of Sustainable Technologies, World Bank, BNHS.