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Deadly heatwaves in India and Pakistan: It’s only the beginning

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At the time of writing, India and Pakistan have been facing repetitive heatwaves for more than a month. India has registered its most severe heatwave in March since 1900. Temperature in Pakistan reached 51°C on May 14th, that is the highest temperature on record in 2022.

Even though over one billion people are affected, it doesn’t seem to shock many people in the Western world, where the majority of media still continues to adopt the“Don’t look up”stance. As if climate change only affected far away countries and didn’t have consequences in France. Worse, when these heatwaves are mentioned, they are often coupled with pictures of people having fun at the beach, children running in water springs, with radiant smiles. Sadly, this couldn’t be further from the truth, and consequences are already dire.

Heatwaves in India and Pakistan: What is happening?

High temperatures in India are not unusual. However, such high temperatures over the course of several weeks is a whole different story. These extremely warm temperatures started as early as March 11th in northern India, and were due to anticylconic conditions on the western parts of the Rajasthan and to a lack of rain. Not only was it the warmest month of March in 122 years (according to the IMD, the Indian Meteorological Department), but the heat did not ease for an entire month.

The heatwave continued into April and even became worse in May, with temperature 4.5°C to 8.5°C higher than normal values. Note that heatwaves vary between countries and regions. The IMD considers that an area is under a heatwave if temperatures are higher than 40°C in the plains, or at least 30°C in mountains, for at least two consecutive days.

In order to better understand the intensity of this heatwave, see the monthly average temperatures in India since 1986:

Average upper and lower temperaturel levels in India since 1986
Average upper and lower temperaturel levels in India since 1986

Are these values significantly different? Absolutely. If this happened in Antarctica, 5 or 7°C higher would be relatively common. But in India, such values are in the top centile of the distribution.These heatwaves are exceptional for two reasons: Their intensity, but also their duration.

A similar situation in Pakistan

These heatwave episodes are just as extraordinary in Pakistan. April has been especially hot and dry, the warmest month of April in the last 61 years. According to the Pakistan meteorological department, the average national temperature was 28.36°C, which is 4.05°C higher than normal values between 1961 and 1990 (and 3°C higher than between 1991 and 2020). April 2022 was the warmest month ever on record, with an staggering difference of almost 1°C with the second warmest month on record (April 2010)..

On May 12th, 13th and 14th, temperatures in Jacobabad reached 50°C, while other parts of the country reached almost 50°C as well. We can only hope that these temperatures will go down in the next few days, given that the humid phase of the monsoon only starts between the end of June and the beginning and July in the north-west of India or in Pakistan.

50 degrees in Pakistan
Source: Scott Duncan

What are the consequences of these heat waves?

Consequence #1: The wet-bulb temperature

The worst isn’t the raw air temperature (dry-bulb), but the maximum wet bulb temperature. The wet-bulb temperature measures the combination of heat and humidity, and reflects the ability of a human body to cool down through evaporation (sweating) of water into the air. When the wet bulb temperature reaches values above 30°C, we are unable to lower our body temperature through sweating, and we die from a heat stroke in the following hours (usually between 4 and 6 hours). The result is the same, whether or not you have water.

Warning: This is a complicated, heterogeneous concept, which can have different meanings depending on the region where it is used. For instance, the French press has used 35°C as the lethality threshold for more than a month now, while recent studies show this treshold to be closer to 31°C.

Of course, this only applies to people in good health. It’s possible to have serious health problems or die even at a lower humidity temperature. Indeed, 28 degrees can be enough: Such values were reached during the European and Russian heatwaves of 2003 and 2010, causing the death of tens of thousands of people.

NB1: The humidex is also based an interesting calculation (not to be confused with the wet-bulb thermometer, which is measured with a psychrometer).

The role of humidity on heat-related discomfort.
The role of humidity on heat-related discomfort.
The humidex does not take into account the skin’s exposure to the sun, nor the winds that could help evaporation. Warning: This is an estimate, and not a precise measurement.
Source: Mé

NB2: The IPCC uses the notion of “Heat Index” (HI). As is the case with heat waves, the Heat Index differs depending on geographical areas (and therefore does not have an international value that could be applied everywhere). Chapter 12 of the latest IPCC report provides an illustration of the areas at risk, including India and Pakistan:

(d-f) Average number of days per year when the heat index NOAA (HI) is over 41°C.
Such as India and Pakistan
(a-c) Average number of days per year when maximum temperatures is over 35°C;
(d-f) Average number of days per year when the heat index NOAA(HI) is over 41°C.
Source: Chapter12, AR6 WG1

Consequence#2: Work…and health

The Indian labor market is far from being adapted to present and future climate hazards. Sophie Landrin, correspondent for the French newspaper “Le Monde” in India, provides us with some details regarding workers during the heatwave:

“On the contrary, people continue to work, in spite of extreme conditions, because the majority of workers are not employed. They belong to what is called the “informal sector”: they have no insurance and no work contract. If they are not working, they are not compensated. During the first and second waves of Covid-19, they had to return to their villages, despite the fact that transport had stopped, because they could no longer work, nor find accommodation or food.”

Otherwise said: Work, or you won’t have any money to buy your food. Work, or die. These are the horrid conditions in which tens of millions of Indians go to work in factories, in construction, in the fields, etc. They can’t rely on air conditioning either: Only around 12% of the population has access to air conditioning, the vast majority of which are the affluent.

There are two major consequences to this. The first is that India loses more than 100 billion working hours per year due to heat waves. This country is by far the most concerned by the subject, and the figures anticipated by a warming of +2°C or +4°C are staggering.

India loses more than 100 billion working hours a year due to heat waves
The 10 countries with the most important labor losses over the 12-hour workday due to heat exposure, weighted by the working-age population in outdoor heavy-duty industries in the present (a average 2001-2020), and with +1 °C, +2 °C, and +4 °C of additional global warming (b-d, global ΔT).
The overall sum of lost labor (for the 163 countries with available data) is shown above each graph, the numbers around the center of the circle indicate the individual losses by country, and the thickness of the circle increases as the overall sum of lost labor increases with warming.
All units are expressed in billions of hours/year.
Source: Increased labor losses and decreased adaptation potential in a warmer world

The second consequence is of course the health of the workers. Being forced to work under 45°C because you have no choice comes with mutliple adverse effects on health: Hyperthermia, heat strokes, dehydration, reduced cognitive capacity, accidents, psychiatric disorders, etc. For those fortunate enough to be able to go to the hospital, we can only hope that the hospitals can anticipate and withstand the increased need for healthcare.

Consequence #3: Agriculture

Agriculture is one of the sectors that will suffer the most from these heat waves and droughts. 39% of the Pakistani population works in agriculture, accounting for 18.5% of the GDP. In India, more than half of the population works in this sector, accounting for about 23% of the GDP. A lower GDP because of heat waves isn’t the only source of concern for India. Perhaps one of the most dreaded impacts is the impact on crops, in a region of the world where many depend on wheat to eat. According to testimonies, there are farmers who have lost between 10 and 50% of their crop because of the heat wave.

While the Indian authorities declared that the country was not on the verge of food insecurity in April, the discourse completely changed on Saturday, May 14:“India prohibited wheat exports that the world was counting on to alleviate supply constraints sparked by the war in Ukraine, saying that the food security of the nation was under threat.”

Javier Blas, a specialist in raw materials at Bloomberg, anticipates high inflation: “Before the export ban, India was expected to be one of the top-10 wheat exporters for the 2022-23 crop season. Removing all (or part of) India’s expected wheat exports creates a massive hole in the global supply and demand. Wheat prices will continue to rise, and will do so quickly.

India is among the top 10 wheat exporters in the world for the coming season.
India is among the top 10 wheat exporters in the world for the coming season.
Credit: Javier Blas

While these announcements are subject to change and are dependent on future conditions, they are a reminder that a political decision can put an end to exports…and therefore imports from other countries. Decades of globalization have not prepared countries to withstand climatic hazards and their consequences. What will happen if no decision is taken to strengthen the food security of countries and the world warms up to +1.5°C, 2°C or even 3°C?

Consequence #4: Restarting coal production v. blackout

One of the most common ways to cope with a heat wave is to turn on air conditioning. This solution is not without consequences, especially in a country like India. Almost 80% of the electricity mix comes from fossil fuels, and just over 70% from coal. Given that the authorities had not anticipated the heat waves to last so long, the high demand for electricity has depleted coal stocks and power cuts have been very frequent in the country for the last two months, sometimes for several hours. We’re not here talking about a few homes, but about two-thirds of the households, or hundreds of millions of people.

On the left, the annual electricity production in India (in TWh). On the right, the electricity mix by energy in %.

To meet the explosion in electricity demand, Coal India has restarted production at record levels. It’s just like a snake dying with its tail in its mouth. This is what happens when you manage a power system — and more generally an energy system — precipitately without any planning. Decisions are made in a hurry, which can potentially aggravate climate change and therefore amplify hazards and disasters.

Consequence #5: The combined effects

One of the identified risks of ongoing global warming is that each region could experience more extreme weather events, sometimes combined, and with multiple consequences. This is more likely to happen with +2°C warming than 1.5°C (and even more so with additional warming levels). Translate “combined” as “several simultaneously” (a heatwave, followed by mega-fires for instance, just like in Canada in June 2021).

There have been several similar cases in Pakistan over the past two months. With the heat wave, glaciers melt much faster than expected which can have a cascading effect. This is what happened with several glacial lake failures, including the one on the Shisper glacier.

This area is monitored by scientists because these flash floods do not only have economic and social consequences, but can also be deadly, with thousands of people at risk of being caught in floods.

Among other consequences is the increasing megafire frequency and intensity. According to the Forest Survey of India, recent years have seen an increase in the number of megafires, and 2022 will be no exception. These fires have caused dozens of agricultural fields to burn, further destroying wheat crops. Some of the famous “carbon offset” forests have also gone up in smoke in the north of the country. Here’s a friendly reminder to companies and states which stay idle and plant trees to compensate for their inaction: It will not be enough.

Should we blame it on climate change?

This question always comes up: Is this because of climate change? I’ve been reading the reactions for more than a month, and the bad news is that there are climate skeptics in every country boasting that this has nothing to do with it and that there have always been heat waves and droughts.

The World Weather Attribution (WWA)team is expected to issue its final report within two weeks on whether or not heat waves are indeed the consequence of anthropogenic climate change. But regardless of the result, we already know about human-induced global warming and its consequences, namely more frequent and more intense heatwaves. There is no room for doubt, as this has been documented in several reports, including the latest IPCC report.

Update 24/005: The WWA has published its report, and their study confirms that climate change has made the heat wave hitting India and Pakistan since the beginning of March thirty times more likely.

How deadly have these heatwaves been?

This is the most difficult question about heatwaves: How deadly are they? First, it is important to remember that although a heat wave is a meteorological event, it cannot be assessed without reference to human impacts. Many socio-economic factors influence the disruption caused by a heat wave, including population density, housing conditions and early warning systems..

Take the 2003 heat wave in France, for instance. It can take years to get a final and reliable estimate. This is even truer for countries like India and Pakistan, which lack official figures to evaluate casualties. Concerning the reliability of the Indian government’s announcements, I personally wouldn’t put too much trust in it. An example? The World Health Organization estimates that at least 4 million Indians have died from Covid, well above the official figure of just under 524,000 deaths. Unsurprisingly, the Modi government disputes these figures… Unsurprisingly, the Modi government disputes these figures…

In the case of the current heat waves, reliable figures are extremely difficult to come by. The Indian government has officially recognized around ten deaths, some Indian newspapers dozens,the international press between tens and hundreds… and sometimes without any source!

Another issue to consider is that India only takes into account deaths by heat strokes that were medically certified.

Deaths directly caused by a heat wave in India, from 1970 to 2019
Source: Factly, Envistats 2022

Even if the last decade saw a record number of deaths due to heat waves, the management of these events has improved since 2015 (more than 2,000 casualties), thereby reducing the potential number of casualties. But this means absolutely nothing about the future, and the number of deaths will greatly depend on the actions taken by the Indian government in terms of prevention and adaptation to heat waves.

Will India be able to adapt to future heat waves?

Before concluding, it is interesting to understand what India can expect, depending on future global warming.

First, India is only at +1 degree of warming today (+1.1°C globally, +1.8°C for France). On our current emissions trajectory (SSP2-4.5), India is headed for about 3.5°C of warming by the end of the century, and about +2°C by 2040.

Barring a miracle, the Earth will continue to warm (at least) over the next two decades. As the current heat waves are already dangerously close to the physiological limits of Indians and Pakistanis, it will be important to monitor policy decisions on mitigation and adaptation to climate hazards. The decisions taken today by both governments are not up to the challenge.

However, it is crucial to remember that India and Pakistan are paying the price for the selfish decisions of the northern hemisphere, which is historically responsible for climate change. The IPCC pointed to this in Part 2 on adaptation: ““Hard limits to adaptation have been reached in some ecosystems (high confidence). With increasing global warming, losses and damage will increase and additional human and natural systems will reach adaptation limits (high confidence).”“. In other words: Some populations will not be able to adapt, and will have to migrate, or die.

Map expressing the different vulnerabilities, based on national averages. This map does not show local differences. This is why you will find below the map some examples of vulnerable populations.
Source: Figure TS.7 of the 6th IPCC report, group 2

A final word

It’s hard to be more straightforward than Christophe Cassou, leading author of the latest IPCC report, when he states that “we are given a foretaste of our climate future. For the exceptional not to become the norm, we must reduce our greenhouse gas emissions immediately, sustain it over time and across all sectors… Not in 3 years, now!

In addition to a reduction in emissions, adaptation will play a crucial role in the coming years and decades. The time when we thought mitigation of emissions would be enough is over. But this should not obscure the very strong sense of climate injustice underlying the events in India and Pakistan. Chandni Singh, lead author of the latest IPCC report, reminds us of this: “Historical emitters of greenhouse gases have to step up because we are, in countries like India and Pakistan, really hitting the limits of adapting to heat”. Remember thatIndia barely accounts for 3% of historical emissions, and Pakistan less than 1%. These countries are paying and will pay for the excesses of Northern countries, as well as the selfish and socially unjust decisions of their respective leaders.

I would like to conclude this article with a question. I don’t think that most French people realize that we are already making parts of the world uninhabitable, even though we are only at +1.1°C of global warming. Do you really want to see what a world at +2°C looks like?


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Thomas Wagner
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