New Delhi — Hundreds of millions of people across much of India and Pakistan have been exposed to a deadly heat wave for nearly two months. High temperatures began to scorch the two countries in mid-March, well before June’s usual summer peak, breaking records and catching people and governments off guard.
At least 25 people have died in India and more than 65 deaths have been reported in Pakistan, but the true numbers are expected to be higher.
Northwest and central India faced their hottest April in 122 years with temperatures crossing 100 degrees Fahrenheit in most parts. India’s capital New Delhi saw temperatures exceed 110 F for several days last month. In Pakistan, temperatures in Jacobabad and Nawabshah reached 120 F in late April.
The Indian subcontinent faces heatwaves every summer, but this year has been different, though not because of record temperatures, experts say.
“It is unique for three reasons: it came very early, it covered a huge area in the two countries and it stayed for a long time…this is very unusual,” Vimal Mishra, a climate scientist at the Indian Institute of Technology in Gandhinagar, told CBS. News.
Nights in many parts of the two countries have also been no relief as low temperatures have not dipped below 86 F. Experts say this can be deadly as the body does not have time to recover from the daytime heat.
Scorching temperatures have forced some local governments in the two countries to close schools and advise people to stay indoors. But for the many millions of farmers, construction workers, day laborers and street vendors who work outdoors and live from day to day, staying home is a luxury they cannot afford.
The heat wave is also expected to affect the wheat harvest in India, the world’s second largest producer. The country has seen record harvests in the last five years.
Demand for electricity has soared, leading to a shortage of coal for power plants and resulting blackouts for several hours a day in many parts of the country. The country has canceled hundreds of passenger trains to make way for more freight trains to haul coal to plants as stocks run low.
Nearly 70% of India’s electricity comes from coal-fired power plants. Although the country has made significant strides toward clean energy, ditching coal will take a long time.
Heat waves affected by climate change
A recent scientific report published in February said that human activity caused heat waves in India to occur more frequently and to be more intense during the 20th century.
“No doubt climate change is playing a role here…although we’ll have to look at other factors as well,” said Mishra, the climate scientist.
Experts say India and Pakistan will see more severe heat waves in coming decades unless more rigorous action is taken to stop global climate change.
“This is just a snapshot of what we’re going to see in the next 20 to 30 years,” Mishra told CBS News.
“There is no doubt that future heat waves will occur more frequently, last longer and cover larger parts of the subcontinent…affecting water availability, agriculture, business and energy demand,” he said.
According to an Indian government report produced by the Ministry of Earth Sciences, the average frequency of summer heat waves will increase to about 2.5 events per season by the middle of the 21st century, with a further increase to about 3 events by end of century. The average duration of heat waves is also expected to increase to 18 days per season by the end of the century.
The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has predicted a similar scenario for India. Consulting firm McKinsey & Company estimates that by the end of the decade, the country could lose $250 billion or 4.5% of its gross domestic product due to lost work hours due to heat waves.