India is experiencing an early onset of summers in 2022. March 2022 has been the hottest to occur in the past 122 years. The untimely and severe onset of summers has also bolstered the occurrence of extreme and frequent heatwaves. The Indian Meteorological Department issued warnings for heatwave like conditions across India in April 2022. Many states such as Rajasthan, West Bengal, Maharashtra and Delhi are witnessing an unprecedented heatwave which has caused power outages, water shortages, and school closures.
While many factors are at play behind common heatwaves, such as anticyclones and deficient rainfalls, climate change is an undeniable contributor to their severity and frequency. Heatwaves have been a long endured and frequent occurrence with short-term and long-term impacts. The current heatwave has unearthed some of the many threats of severe weather conditions. India’s wheat harvesting faces an extreme danger, and massive fires have engulfed four urban landfills in the past month.
Disasters and adverse climatic conditions render marginalized populations the most vulnerable to impact. Evidence from India documented in the book Inequality and Climate Change elucidates that workers in the informal sector suffer significantly from economic losses and poor health and forces them to spend more resources to adapt to heatwaves. Urban labouring populations who live in informal settlements, and rural communities dependent on natural water bodies and rainfall for their livelihood, all face notably higher losses than the rest of the workforce.
The World Health Organisation notes heatwaves as among the most dangerous of natural hazards. A recent study by the Indian Meteorological Department, Ministry of Earth Sciences and other top scientists revealed that more than 17,000 people have died due to heatwaves in the past 50 years. The highest number of deaths have occurred across Odisha, Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan and Bihar.
In addition to death, economic losses and deterioration of quality of life, unprecedented migration flows are likely to increase due to climate change. If measures to limit global warming to below 2 degrees centigrade are not embraced, as per an ActionAid report, more than 62 million South Asians will be forced to migrate out of their homes by 2050, more than treble the number in 2020. Furthermore, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports of 2021 and 2022 warn us that heatwaves will intensify in the South Asian region.
In light of these circumstances, the Government of India and governments across the globe must take cognizance of the dangers of heatwaves and implement appropriate measures to curb their effects. We must assess the factors that lead to heatwaves and adequately address the damage they cause. Preparedness and compensation mechanisms are of extreme importance in increasing the resilience of at-risk populations. Unfortunately, the compensation offered to heatwave victims is substantially lesser than that provided in other calamities.
Debabrat Patra, Associate Director and National Humanitarian Lead, ActionAid Association, says, “We should treat heatwaves at par with other disasters, and we must address the compensation gap. We should extend compensation to people with ailments caused by severe heat rather than only focusing on mortality.”
Furthermore, active and prompt measures are required to combat climate change at large and enact climate just measures that empower the most vulnerable persons. India’s laud worthy commitments at the 26th Conference of Parties (CoP26) should be worked on without adversely affecting marginalized groups. The unique needs of agricultural workers, pastoralists, fisher folks and other groups reliant on natural resources should act as the foundation for India’s climate action measures.
Sandeep Chachra, Executive Director of ActionAid Association, adds, “We need a pro-poor and inclusive approach to climate change action. More than just social imagery of sustainable urban life, we need a participatory, decentralized, futuristic and technology-enabled action on planning, building and managing a climate just country. The participation and leadership of vulnerable communities in rural and urban areas is the best way to secure social and ecological justice.”