The devastating heat wave that has ravaged India and Pakistan in recent months was made more likely by climate change, according to a study by an international group of scientists released Monday.
This, they say, is a glimpse of what the future holds for the region.
The World Weather Attribution initiative analyzed historical weather data and suggested that early, long heatwaves that affect a vast geographic area are rare events that happen once a century. But the current level of global warming caused by human-induced climate change has made those heat waves 30 times more likely.
If global warming rises to 2 C (3.6 F) more than pre-industrial levels, heat waves like this could occur twice in a century and up to once every five years, said Arpita Mondal, a climate scientist at the University of Groningen. Indian Institute of Technology in Mumbai, which was part of the study.
“This is a sign of things to come,” Mondal said.
Conservative estimate of link to climate change
The results are conservative: An analysis published last week by the United Kingdom’s Meteorological Office said the heat wave was likely 100 times more likely due to climate change, with such scorching temperatures likely to recur every three years.
The World Weather Attribution analysis is different in that it tries to calculate how specific aspects of the heat wave, such as its length and the region affected, were made more likely by global warming. “The real result is probably somewhere between ours and the… [U.K.] With office result for how much climate change has exacerbated this event,” said Friederik Otto, a climate scientist at Imperial College London, who was also part of the study.
What is certain is the devastation caused by the heat wave. India had the country’s warmest March since records began in 1901, and April was the warmest on record in Pakistan and parts of India.
The effects were cascaded and widespread: a glacier burst in Pakistan, flooding downstream, and the early heat scorched wheat crops in India, forcing it to ban exports to countries greedy for food shortages caused by Russia’s war in Ukraine.
The heat wave also sparked an early spike in electricity demand in India, depleting coal reserves, leading to acute power shortages that affected millions.
Then there is the impact on human health. At least 90 people have died in the two countries, but the region’s inadequate death records mean it’s likely an undercount.
South Asia is the part of the world most affected by heat stress, according to an analysis by The Associated Press of a data set published by Columbia University’s climate school. In India alone, more than a third of the world’s population lives in areas where extreme heat is rising.
Experts agree that the heat wave underscores the need for the world to not only fight climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but also adapt as quickly as possible to its damaging effects.
Children and the elderly are most at risk from heat stress, but the impact is also disproportionately greater for the poor, who may not have access to refrigeration or water and often live in overcrowded slums that are hotter than greener, wealthier neighborhoods.
‘If I don’t work…we don’t eat’
Rahman Ali, 42, a ragpicker in an eastern suburb of the Indian capital New Delhi, earns less than $3 a day collecting garbage from people’s homes and sorting it to salvage what can be sold. It’s backbreaking work, and his tin-roofed house in the overcrowded slum offers little respite from the heat.
‘What can we do? If I’m not working…we don’t eat,” said the father of two.
Some Indian cities have tried to find solutions. The western city of Ahmedabad was the first in South Asia to devise a heat wave plan in 2013 for its population of more than 8.4 million.
The plan includes an early warning system that tells health professionals and residents to prepare for heat waves, allows governments to keep parks open so people can get into shade, and provides information to schools so they can adjust their schedules.
The city has also tried to “cool” roofs by experimenting with different materials that absorb heat differently. Their goal is to build roofs that reflect the sun and lower indoor temperatures by using white, reflective paint or cheaper materials such as dried grass, said Dileep Mavalankar, head of the Indian Institute of Public Health in the western Indian city of Gandhinagar and helped draft the plan for 2013.
Most Indian cities are less prepared and the federal government of India is now working with 130 cities in 23 heat wave-prone states across the country to help them develop similar plans.
Earlier this month, the federal government also asked states to raise awareness among health professionals about coping with heat-related illness and ensure that ice packs, oral rehydration salts and refrigeration equipment are available in hospitals.
But Mavalankar, who was not part of the investigation, pointed to the lack of government warnings in newspapers and on television for most Indian cities and said local authorities simply hadn’t “woken up to the heat”.