Both South Asian nations have experienced record heat over the past two months, but the worst may be yet to come.
The record-breaking heatwave that gripped most of India and Pakistan in March and April saw temperatures top 45C (113F) in many locations, causing dozens of deaths and severe power and water shortages. Scientists say that its early onset was linked to climate change, and that over a billion people have been affected. There will be no immediate respite, with monsoon rains only expected next month.
Global warming and high temperatures are a new reality around the world. But for Pakistan and India, however, the situation is exacerbated by rapid urbanization, densely populated areas and the size of the agricultural workforce, making the subcontinent more vulnerable to extreme weather events. Low-income communities, without access to cooling resources, living in congested urban areas are most exposed – with women, children and the elderly at most risk of health problems. Even households with air conditioners have not been spared, with power and water shortages becoming more common.
At least 25 Indians have died, all in the state of Maharashtra, and Pakistan has reported 65 deaths – but the true toll is expected to be much higher. “This heatwave is likely to kill thousands,” tweeted Robert Rohde, lead scientist at Berkeley Earth, a climate science research non-profit.
The fact this episode has occurred so early in the year is especially concerning, with South Asia facing rising temperatures linked to climate change. An extended heatwave on the subcontinent in 2015 caused more than 2,500 deaths in India and more than 1,200 deaths in Pakistan.
How severe is the heatwave?
The extreme heat is breaking all records in both countries – and has arrived unseasonably early. Pakistan went from winter to summer, bypassing the spring season.
Jacobabad, a city in Pakistan's Sindh province that was recently classified by Amnesty International as "unlivable for humans" due to rising summer temperatures, hit a new record of 49C last week. Another extremely severe heatwave was forecast to grip Sindh province in mid-May with temperatures approaching 50C.
Similarly, the north-west region of India recorded an average maximum temperature of 36C, while the central region recorded 38C in March. According to the Indian Meteorological Department, these were the highest March averages in both regions in the last 122 years. Meanwhile, the temperature in New Delhi, India's capital, tipped over 40C for several days in April. Even more alarming is that the big summer heat may yet be still to come before the monsoon rains arrive in June.
What is the impact on food and water security?
Pre-monsoon rains have been severely lacking in India and Pakistan this year, meaning less access to water both for direct human consumption and agriculture.
The heatwave has already wreaked havoc on crops such as wheat and a variety of vegetables and fruits. Wheat crop yields have dropped by as much as 50% in areas of India worst hit by extreme temperatures, adding to concerns of a worldwide shortage following Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
The impact on food production in Pakistan is severe since it is a highly agricultural country, with more than 42% of its workforce involved in the sector. Crops in Sindh and Balochistan provinces, as well as fruit harvests such as peaches and apples, have been ravaged.
Pakistan's Minister for Climate Change, Sherry Rehman, said that the country has seen a rapid rise in temperature in the last two years, adversely impacting agricultural products. As an example, she said Pakistan used to export sugar, wheat and rice, but now the country imports all these items to feed its people.
In many parts of the two countries, the water situation is no better. In India’s capital, New Delhi, thousands of people are battling to find water, with the adjacent state Haryana releasing less water into a key supply river because of low reservoir levels.
In rural areas of Gujurat, Odisha and Maharashtra, women already forced to walk long distances to obtain drinking water have had to go further afield still. In Maharashtra, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), an autonomous constitutional body, has directed the government to provide potable water to villagers.
“The women have to walk a kilometre and a half every day during summer months from March to June, to fetch water from a nearly dry stream at the bottom of a hill taking a lot of time and patience to fill the pots. Reportedly, families now hesitate to get their daughters married in this village,” said the NHRC in its order.
In Pakistan, Rehman expressed concern about water shortages, saying: “Our big dams are at dead level right now, and sources of water are scarce.” She warned that major cities, currently experiencing large influxes of people because of rising temperatures, may face a serious water crisis by 2025. She said: “Forced migration takes place from rural areas to cities, where people feel safer, but cities, as you know, can become heat islands so it is a real conundrum.”
Rehman pointed out a further tragedy: that Pakistan contributes less than 1% of global emissions that lead to such extreme weather, but is experiencing the most existentially threatening transformation in patterns.
What does South Asia’s climate future look like?
According to the Sixth Assessment Report on Climate Change, India and Pakistan are predicted to experience more severe heatwaves and high humidity – the latter potentially critical in causing potentially deadly “wet-bulb” heatwaves. It predicts that warming cities like Karachi in Pakistan and Kolkata in India will experience annual conditions comparable to the 2015 heatwave at 1.5C above preindustrial levels. But, according to projections from Berkeley Earth, both India and Pakistan face potential warming of 3.5C by the end of the century.
According to a new analysis, climate change will cause a loss of 4% of global annual economic output by the year 2050 and will disproportionately harm poorer regions. Low and lower middle income countries, on average, are likely to suffer 3.6 times greater losses in a baseline scenario where governments largely shun new climate change policies. The susceptibility of Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka to wildfires, floods, major storms and water shortages puts 10-18% of their GDP at risk.
How can governments provide immediate relief?
Extreme heat is becoming a regular phenomenon in South Asia, and governments should come up with mitigation policies. There is a need for heat adaptation plans that are tailored to the geographical conditions of South Asian cities and that provide cooling resources for low-income communities. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi convened a heatwave management meeting at the start of May, in which states and union territories were urged to establish heat action plans at state, city and district levels.
A robust emergency response system and temporary medical facilities during heatwaves are essential. But in terms of immediate action, the first step should be to provide adequate drinking water in public places and on roads. The construction of temporary shelters with air conditioning installed inside for people who work outdoors is another measure.
Written By: Olivium staff.