New Delhi — Shiv Shankar, 54, works all day at a construction site in the hot New Delhi sun. He couldn’t even think of taking a day off to escape the deadly heatwave that has gripped India’s capital and much of the north of the country since late March. That meant losing a day’s wages, and his family of four couldn’t afford it.
Hundreds of millions of workers in India and Pakistan spend every day outside, with no option to escape even the hottest hours of the day. Those workers may face increased life-or-death choices to go to work, as scientists say, climate change is deadly,like those that hit northwestern India and Pakistan are now 100 times more likely to happen.
A report published this week by the UK government’s Meteorological Office said climate change had increased the likelihood of a heatwave hitting the region from once every 312 years, to once every 3.1 years.
“And by the end of the century… this will increase to once every 1.15 years,” the study concluded.
In recent weeks, temperatures above 120 degrees Fahrenheit have scorched parts of India and Pakistan, killing dozens of people,increasing energy demand while triggering blackouts, forcing authorities to close schools, and prompting officials to warn people to stay indoors.
New Delhi hit 120 degrees on Sunday.
“I’ve seen heatwaves before, but this is something completely different,” Shankar told CBS News Thursday. “I drink lots of water to keep myself hydrated, and take small breaks from work.”
Shankar migrated from the central Indian state of Uttar Pradesh to New Delhi a few years ago to work in construction. He sends most of his income home so his wife and two teenage children can put food on their table.
Scientists say prolonged exposure to extreme temperatures poses a risk of fatal heatstroke and can affect the function of vital organs including the heart, lungs, kidneys, liver and brain.
Authorities do urge workers to take time off on the hottest days, but since workers are only paid when they are working, it could mean a crippling loss of income for millions of families like the Shankars.
Between 2001 and 2020, India lost an estimated 259 billion man-hours per year due to the effects of extreme heat, according to a Duke University study published in January. That means an estimated $624 billion in losses to the Indian economy, and a far more literal impact on families living through word of mouth every week.
“I earn 300 to 400 rupees (about $5) per day,” Shiv Kumar Mandal, a rickshaw driver in Delhi’s shopping district, told CBS News on Friday. “What do you mean, ‘why am I working in this heat?’ If I don’t work, we will starve to death.”
“There is no doubt that in future heatwaves will be more frequent, last longer and cover most of the Indian subcontinent,” Vimal Mishra, a climate scientist at the Indian Institute of Technology in Gandhinagar told CBS News earlier this month.
Forcing people to decide between working in hazardous conditions or running out of money is just one of the effects of the heatwave in the region.
“They will affect water availability, agriculture, business and energy demand,” Mishra told CBS News.
The current heatwave in India has had a global impact, helping to send prices upsoared to a record high last week after India banned exports of the crop, which has been badly damaged by dry and hot conditions.
Scientists say it’s a testament to the fact that, while India and other developing countries are more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, they will not suffer alone.
“This is not going to stop in India,” Dr Anjal Prakash, climate scientist and principal investigator of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), told CBS News. “This will eventually hit the backyards of the countries that created this problem for us.”