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No one prepared for unprecedented heat endured this summer: Sunita Narain

Sunita Narain stressed the need to develop a heat index, which measures how the temperature feels to the human body when relative humidity is combined with air temperature

women, heatwave

India experienced multiple intense and prolonged heatwaves in April and May. (Photo: Bloomberg)

Press Trust of India New Delhi
India is grappling with unprecedented heat this summer and no one is prepared for the level of warming being experienced, leading environmentalist Sunita Narain has said, emphasising the need for a heat index and a complete overhaul of the way modern cities are designed.
In an interaction with PTI editors here, Narain, the Director General of the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), said the brutal heat scorching swathes of India is a result of naturally occurring El Nino phenomenon -- an unusual warming of the ocean surface in the central and eastern tropical Pacific Ocean -- and climate change.
"Nobody is prepared. Let's be very clear. 2023 was globally the hottest year on record. We have broken every record in the last 45 days with an unbroken (streak of) temperatures above 40 degrees. This is climate change. It is compounded this year by the waning of the (2023-24) El Nino. This means we really need to get our act together. We need to ensure that vulnerable communities are less affected," she said.
Narain stressed the need to develop a heat index, which measures how the temperature feels to the human body when relative humidity is combined with air temperature.
"We need a heat index similar to the air quality index we have on our phones. AQI tells you the level of air pollution and its impact on your health. This linkage is essential to know what actions need to be taken. Remember, heat is not only about temperature, it is also about humidity," she said.
The India Meteorological Department began issuing an experimental heat index for different parts of the country in April last year.
The IMD officials said India will soon come up with its system now, a multi-parameter product called 'heat hazard score', which along with temperature and humidity will also integrate other parameters such as wind and duration.
Narain noted that heatwaves are turning modern glass buildings into furnaces, overheating the occupants and emphasized the need for new architectural science to address this heat.
"Your biggest challenge today is how to rebuild the cities. Look at Gurugram - it's all glass facades. Those glass buildings are the worst thing you could have for a heating climate," she said.
India experienced multiple intense and prolonged heatwaves in April and May, testing the limits of human endurance and the country's disaster preparedness, as many states, including Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Odisha, reported heatwave-related deaths.
According to the IMD data, 14 of the 36 sub-divisions in the country recorded over 15 heatwave days (when the maximum temperature is at least 40 degrees Celsius and 4.5 degrees above normal) from March 1 to June 9.
Studies show that rapid urbanization has exacerbated warming in the urban areas, with outdoor workers and low-income households bearing the brunt of the impact.
Low-income households have limited capacity to adapt to extreme heat because of poor access to water and electricity. The design and construction of informal houses often mean there is poor ventilation and little shelter from extreme heat.
The heatwave in May saw several places across the country, including the hills of Assam, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh and Arunachal Pradesh, recording all-time high temperatures. The mercury breached 50 degrees Celsius in Rajasthan and neared this mark in Delhi and Haryana.
Similar heatwaves, which once occurred every 30 years, have become about 45 times more likely due to climate change, according to 'World Weather Attribution', a group of leading climate scientists.
There are concerns that heatwaves in April and May played a role in the lower-than-usual voter turnout during the seven-phase general elections in India which began on April 19 and ended on June 1, the second longest after the 1951-52 parliamentary elections.
The intense heat has already driven India's power demand to a record 246 gigawatts, with air conditioners and coolers in homes and offices running at full capacity.
According to the Central Water Commission, water storage in 150 major reservoirs in India dropped to just 22 per cent of their live storage last week, exacerbating water shortages in many states and significantly affecting hydropower generation.
India recorded nearly 25,000 suspected heat stroke cases and 56 deaths due to heat-related illnesses from March to May, PTI reported earlier, citing data from the health ministry.
According to data compiled by the National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC), 46 of these deaths were recorded in May alone (till May 30). Between May 1 and 30, 19,189 suspected heat stroke cases were reported in the country.
The data does not include deaths from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Delhi, and could just be the tip of the iceberg, officials said.

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First Published: Jun 16 2024 | 12:59 PM IST

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