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A summer like no other? Not really. India has seen worse heat waves

Here’s a look at the worst heat waves India has witnessed since Independence and measures taken by the country to mitigate the effects of excessive heat.

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New Delhi: In 1998, a blistering heat wave swept through parts of the country, claiming over 3,000 lives. Crematoria in Andhra Pradesh were filled to the brim with families having to collect tokens and wait their turn to put their loved ones to rest.

While this is an image not often associated with heat waves, accounts from that year illustrate just how devastating a severe one can be. According to the IMD, a heat wave is said to be in motion when the maximum temperature reaches or exceeds 40 degrees Celsius. This threshold is 30 degrees Celsius for hilly regions.

India is recovering from an unusually early and prolonged heat wave that began in March and went on till April, with both months witnessing record temperatures. Respite will be short lived, the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) has said, as another heat wave is expected to set in this week.

What’s more is that as a result of climate change, India is likely to witness more frequent and intense heat waves in the years to come. By some estimates, this process has already begun. 

“It’s only now that we’re beginning to look at the impacts of heat waves more holistically, looking at the effects on health, livestock, agriculture, and infrastructure. Otherwise, we relied on just temperature and mortality,” said Anup Kumar Srivastava, an expert on heat waves working with the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) as a consultant.

“The other impacts of heat waves are not so directly measured, but some of them include energy demand, water demand, agricultural produce, and labour efficiency. Other than mortality, these impacts can’t be found in an indexed form,” Vimal Mishra, a scientist with the Indian Institute of Technology, Gandhinagar, told ThePrint.

The National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) still does not consider heat waves a natural disaster, and came up with guidelines on how to handle them only in 2015. 

Here’s a look at some of the worst ever heat waves India has experienced over the years and how the Indian government’s response to them has changed, with a greater focus on adaptation and mitigation in recent years. 

Also Read: India endures severe heat waves — The only reason is global warming

May 1956

On 10 May 1956, a weather station of the Indian meteorological department (IMD) in Rajasthan’s Alwar recorded a temperature of 50.6 degree Celsius, the highest the country had recorded by that time.

IMD data shows that the average maximum temperature in May 1956 hovered around 35.4 degree Celsius , a little above the normal average of 35.17 degree Celsius.

Little is known about the impacts of this heat wave and most publicly available documents merely furnish the temperature record and date. 

The 1956 reading remained the highest recorded temperature in India for 60 years, till IMD’s Phalodi station in Rajasthan’s Jodhpur district recorded a temperature of 51 degree Celsius in 2016.

June, July 1966

Parts of India were struck by a severe heat wave in 1966. The heat wave’s origin lay in the overlap of several natural climate phenomena, the IMD said.

According to an IMD report from the time, temperatures rose 11 degree Celsius above the normal-mark in and around Bihar, and Uttar Pradesh, followed by West Bengal and Odisha between 7 June and 12 June that year.

A “break” in the monsoon season led to another heat wave between 3 July and 13 July that same year, affecting Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Maharashtra, and Gujarat.

April, May 1973

Newspaper headlines compared the average maximum temperature of April 2022 with that of April 1973, when it soared to 37.4 degree Celsius.

According to one study, while there were a significant number of heat waves recorded through April and May that year, this did not result in a visible spike in the number of heat-related deaths compared to previous years.

Another paper, co-authored by Dr Vimal Mishra of the Indian Institute of Technology, Gandhinagar, found that the summer of 1973 was the hottest for the region comprising states Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, Tamil Nadu, and parts of Madhya Pradesh. 

While the effects of global warming can be attributed to later heat waves – like the one in 2010 – “the events that occurred in the 1970s cannot be directly associated with anthropogenic climate warming,” said the paper.

May 1998

The year 1998 was an El Niño year, a climate phenomenon that can cause global temperatures to rise and lead to more severe droughts. Average maximum temperature in India soared to 36 degree Celsius that year – similar to readings from May 1921 – and has since exceeded that threshold at least thrice.

The 1998 heat wave has been the most catastrophic India has seen in terms of the recorded death toll. It claimed 3,058 lives, most in Odisha, according to the NDMA

One story from the India Today magazine documents how crematoriums in Andhra Pradesh struggled to cremate the deceased as bodies of heatstroke victims kept piling up.

“Already in the minds of many, the great heat of 1998 has become a sort of benchmark that will gauge the intensity of future summers,” the article read.

May 2002

Among the worst heat waves Indians remember from recent decades was the one from 2002, which claimed 1,000 lives in Andhra Pradesh alone. The heat wave was widely covered by the international media as a devastating natural disaster. 

Most of those who died during the 2002 heat wave were poor and elderly, who could not withstand the 50 degree Celsius.

“In some areas, temperatures were so extreme that many tin-roofed homes turned into ovens, water catchments dried up and animals collapsed from the heat,” reads one report from the time.

May 2010

A heat wave gripped parts of Gujarat in May 2010, causing temperatures to surge as high as 46.8°C in Ahmedabad. The NDMA estimates that the heat wave caused 1,274 deaths, but other analyses suggest it was a little higher, at 1,344.

Another study found that the heat wave also affected newborns, with every one degree Celsius rise in temperature (above 42 degreesCelsius) leading to a 43 per cent spike in heat-related admissions to a hospital in Ahmedabad. Its findings also supported the claim that exposure to extreme heat without climate control increased neonatal morbidity.

Taking a cue, Ahmedabad became the first in South Asia to implement what it called a ‘Heat Action Plan’ to help the city adapt to and mitigate heat waves, which has prevented thousands of deaths since.

May 2015

The heat wave of 2015 is distinguished by a photograph that went viral across the world: A kaleidoscopic zebra crossing, whose distorted appearance was caused by a melting asphalt in New Delhi.

The worst affected state was Andhra Pradesh, which accounted for more than 1,700 of the 2,330 heat-related deaths recorded that year.

Shook by the mounting casualties, the NDMA published a set of guidelines in 2015 on how to prevent and manage heat waves. The agency further encouraged states to design their own ‘Heat Action Plan’ modelled on the one implemented in Ahmedabad.

May 2016

In 2016, India witnessed yet another unforgiving heat wave with temperatures hitting an all-time high of 51 degree Celsius in Rajasthan’s Phalodi.

One report even went ahead to claim that the surge in mercury was such that people could not even walk on the streets of Gujarat without their shoes getting stuck to the road. 

May, June 2019

India witnessed its longest heat wave in three decades in 2019 when it lasted for 32 days, affecting the states of Bihar, West Bengal, Rajasthan, Vidarbha, and Andhra Pradesh, among others. 

“In 2019, sparse rainfall during the pre-monsoon season, along with a delayed monsoon, have made the heat more unbearable,” said a note by NASA’s earth observatory, referring to the heat wave that year.

Important to note is that 2019 was the same year the World Health Organization (WHO) launched a Health Resilience and Capacity Building programme in India, which aims to integrate health services and systems with climate change-related disaster risk reduction.

(Edited by Amrtansh Arora)

Also Read: Heat wave scorches wheat fields in India, reduces yield & threatens export plans


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