Delhi, India- Construction worker Gujral Singh burst into tears as he voiced his concerns about working hard in India’s scorching summer heat.
Tens of millions of Indians are struggling to cope with a relentless heatwave with temperatures in some of the hottest regions in more than 120 years in this South Asian nation.
“It became impossible for me to finish my work,” Singh, 47, a father of two, told Al Jazeera. “I was able to do the job efficiently the previous summer. I passed out several times this summer. I don’t know how I’m going to meet the ultimate needs of my family.”
Pravesh Solanki, 32, another construction worker, echoed the comments but noted that it’s not just older people who face the challenges of working outdoors in extreme heat.
“We are young and full of energy. However, we hold our breath after every half hour, which we usually do after an hour or two. This summer has been amazing to pinch us,” said Solanki.
In a recent press briefing, Director General of the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) Mrutyunjay Mohapatra said central and northwestern India faced the hottest temperatures in 122 years in April.
This year there has been a gradual rise in maximum temperatures of 2-4 degrees Celsius (3.6 to 7.2 Fahrenheit) in the region, and there will be no respite from the heat in May, IMD said.
‘Duration, intensity and frequency’
The heatwave – with temperatures ranging from 43°C to 46°C – occurred in 15 Indian states, including New Delhi, Haryana, Punjab, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat.
Ground surface temperatures, meanwhile, have exceeded 60°C in parts of northwestern India, according to satellite data.
“Extreme climate events occur because of climate instability. Right now, there are only extremes whether it’s heat, cold, floods or drought. This will happen more often than ever before because of climate change. The duration, intensity and frequency will also increase in future,” Akhilesh Gupta, head of the Climate Change Program at India’s Ministry of Science & Technology, told Al Jazeera.
Gupta said while global climate change was largely responsible, local factors were contributing to the unprecedented heat.
“We also have local problems such as high emissions in big cities causing the creation of regional ‘heat islands’. The heat island is the part of the city that is warmer than the rest. So, international global warming and local heat islands are responsible for such heat waves,” he added.
Threats to public health are increasingly dangerous in India.
“Heatwaves are fatal to public health and the economy. It also harms the ecosystem,” said Avinash Chanchal, campaign manager at Greenpeace India.
“We have seen an increase in the hospitalization rate which has also led to deaths from the heat wave. Unfortunately, the most vulnerable communities are facing the brunt of this crisis more than any other.”
Chanchal said the government should step in to help the urban poor, outdoor workers, women, children and the elderly who are at high risk of extreme heat.
“Especially the state and municipal governments should strengthen the public health system, coordinate with the meteorological early warning system to ensure timely medical advice to its citizens.”
The heatwave has had a severe impact on the agricultural sector in India, causing wheat crops to wither in states such as Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, collectively called India’s food bowl.
“The high temperatures this season have not allowed wheat to grow for a long time,” said Tinku Yadav, 23, a farmer in Haryana.
“Previously, wheat would be harvested in late April or early May, but during this season wheat is harvested in late March and early April. My yield, which was nearly 22 to 24 quintals (2.2 to 2.4 tonnes) per acre last summer, has been reduced to just 16 to 18 quintals (1.6 to 1.8 tonnes).”
Pushed to the brink
India is one of the most “heat-stressed” countries in the world and rising temperatures will only exacerbate the workforce who works outside.
India lost 259 billion man-hours every year between 2001 and 2020 due to the effects of humid heat, according to a study by Duke University.
“Due to its large population, India is estimated to lose in absolute terms the equivalent of 34 million full-time jobs by 2030 as a result of heat stress,” reports the International Labor Organization (ILO).
“While most of the impact in India will be felt in the agricultural sector, more and more hours of work are expected to be lost in the construction sector.”
Gardener Surajmal Singh, 53, has cycled to work and home every day for the last 20 years – a total of 50 km (20 miles) each day.
He said it was now too hard for him during the scorching summer temperatures. “In recent years, the heat has increased too much. I never stop my bike in between [the ride]but now I have to take a break to drink water and cool off.”
Satendra Kumar, 32, a food delivery worker expressed his concern for the future. “It’s just the start of summer and the heat feels like June or July… I don’t know what will happen in the coming months and years, but if the heat is going to escalate like this it will create a huge income vacuum for us. ”
Climate change is happening
India will be at a great disadvantage if greenhouse gas emissions are not reduced, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned in its latest report. It described India as potentially the most “economically disadvantaged” due to extreme weather events. The current heatwave is also part of that change, climate experts say.
“Over the past years, people have experienced it in the form of heat waves. We have enough knowledge to link such extreme weather events to climate change,” Avinash said.
G Ramesh, a weather scientist and retired director general of India’s Meteorological Department, emphasized global warming is to blame for recent events in India.
“Heatwaves are common, every summer India suffers from heatwaves, but this time earlier than usual. The main reason for this is global warming. Global warming is accelerating climate change because we have passed 1.2°C of warming from the pre-industrial era,” he said.
As the Earth warms, the polar ice caps are thinning. At the North Pole, for example, sunlight was previously reflected back into the atmosphere. But because of the thinning of the ice, the Arctic Ocean is now absorbing heat.
“This changes the whole circulation pattern, especially the waves coming from the polar regions, which is likely to accelerate the seasonal pattern of warming and cooling,” Ramesh told Al Jazeera.
“Wherever the ice melts in the non-oceanic Arctic region, beneath the ice methane emits… Methane emissions also add to solar warming. So a lot of things happened. Earth systems are bound to respond to these global and local changes. That’s why heat waves occur early. We have to be better prepared for them in the years to come.”
Avinash said adaptation plans should be developed now to deal with extreme weather in India.
“City planning should take steps for vegetation planting, including rooftop gardening and community nutrition gardens, increasing green spaces, and conserving water bodies,” he said.
“At the same time governments, companies and communities need to prioritize transitions in energy, agriculture and other sectors to tackle climate change. Stopping the burning of fossil fuels – including energy and transportation systems – is the most practical and urgent solution that governments need to implement to protect the health of people and future generations.”