As a severe heatwave continues in Bihar, Section 144 of the penal code (curfew) has been imposed in Gaya to keep people indoors. Section 144 is invoked to deal with lawlessness, but the risk posed by the heatwave is so high that the Gaya’s district magistrate has used this penal provision to ban all construction activities, manual labour, and public programmes in open spaces from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. At the same time, the state government has ordered the closure of government schools till 22nd June. So far, more than 180 people have reportedly died because of the heatwave in the Magadha region of Bihar.
Bihar alone is not suffering because of searing temperatures. Over the past month, parts of Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Jharkhand, Odisha, Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan, Punjab, Telangana, and Maharashtra have witnessed record temperatures. On 10th June, Delhi recorded an all-time-high temperature of 48 degrees Celsius (oC), while Churu in Rajasthan registered 50.8oC—the highest maximum temperature ever recorded in India. If the heatwave continues for a few more days, 2019 will become the year with the longest spell of heatwaves on record. The question is: is this a one-off year, or is there a trend?
A heatwave is defined as a period of abnormally high temperatures. Many studies have established that the frequency and intensity of heatwaves in India are rising. A study by Vimal Mishra and others published in 2017 in Environmental Research Letters shows that there has been a substantial increase in the frequency of heatwaves from 1951 to 2015. It also shows that the five most severe heatwaves out of the top ten happened after 1990. Another study, also published in 2017 in Science Advances by Omid Mazdiyasni of the University of California and his colleagues, shows that the number, duration, and intensity of heatwave events have all increased over most of India from 1985 to 2009 relative to 1960 to ’84.
Deaths due to heatwaves are also showing an increasing trend. According to the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), between 1992 and 2016, heatwave caused 25,716 deaths, with maximum deaths in 1998 (more than 3,000) and 2015 (about 2,500). But these numbers are highly unreliable because only deaths due to ‘heat stroke’ and ‘heat exhaustion’ were recorded; overheating can lead to organ failure, stroke, cardiac arrest, etc., which are seldom linked and recorded as heatwave deaths. Still, heatwaves are the third biggest natural cause of death in the country. And this number is likely to increase significantly due to global warming.
There is now a large body of research that shows that global warming has a significant role to play in heatwaves. Scientists from the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology (IITM) have recently published a paper in which they examined nine climate models to understand how the frequency, intensity, and duration of heatwaves in India would increase. They found that the frequency of heatwaves and their duration in India may begin to increase from as early as 2020, and this will keep increasing as global temperatures increase further. Vimal Mishra’s projections suggest that the frequency of severe heatwaves in India will increase thirtyfold by 2100 if the global temperature increases by 2oC compared to the pre-industrial era. Omid Mazdiyasni’s projections indicate that even a moderate increase in temperature will lead to a significant increase in the number of deaths in India, especially of those living in poverty. So, all the projections point to the fact that heatwaves will become a massive natural disaster in the coming years.
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Are we prepared to deal with this imminent crisis?
Some cities and state governments have taken the initiative to develop Heal Action Plans (HAPs). Ahmedabad was the first city to develop a HAP in 2013 to improve public awareness, identify high-risk communities, issue heatwave alerts, and promote inter-agency coordination. Presently, about 30 cities in 11 states have adopted similar HAPs. State-wide HAPs have also been developed by Tamil Nadu and Odisha. But the efforts of the central government remain woefully inadequate.
The Government of India doesn’t currently recognise heatwave as a natural disaster under the National Disaster Management Act, 2005. Heatwave, therefore, is not eligible for support under National or State Disaster Response Funds. Hence, there are not enough resources to build resilience against heatwaves. But it is time that the Central government recognises the looming danger and notifies heatwave as a natural disaster. A mere notification, however, will not be sufficient. The central government will have to put resources and help cities and states prepare for the heatwave emergency by developing and implementing Heat Code and HAPs.
NDMA now has a guideline for preparing HAPs. This is a good beginning and should be used as a base document to develop HAPs for cities and states. But, we need a Heat Code. The Heat Code should clearly define the heatwave emergency based on temperature and humidity factors. Currently, the IMD definition of a heatwave is based only on temperature, which most scientists believe is insufficient to capture heat stress. The Heat Code should also define the Standard Operating Procedure to be activated during intense heat, like restrictions on working hours and provisions for relief at public places and hospitals. Similarly, the district administration should not be using Section 144 to deal with natural calamities. Provision should be built under the National Disaster Management Act, 2005 to declare an emergency and stop outdoor activities during severe conditions.
In 2018, global CO2 emissions reached a record level of over 37 billion tonnes. The growth in emissions was also the highest in the last seven years. So, there is no indication that global emissions will plateau and start reducing quickly. This means that intense heatwaves will soon become a part of our lives and we must do everything to save lives and livelihoods. This is a climate emergency and we must treat it as such.
Deputy director general, CSE. Views are personal.