A days-long heat wave that has already killed over 1100 people in India seems poised to hold out through the end of the week. Temperatures have blazed past 45 degrees Celcius, or 113 degrees Fahrenheit, stoking serious domestic and global concern.
Although May tends to be the hottest month on the Indian calendar, such unrelenting extremes as the country is currently experiencing are uncommon. Climate change is widely seen as the culprit for the conditions. It is no surprise that people have struggled to adapt their routines to the record-breaking temperatures. As BBC reporter Divya Arya put it in New Delhi, “We sweat a lot, for beginners. You tie your hair back instead of leaving it open. You try to eat a lot of fruit like watermelon. You just alter your life because Indian summer is not an aberration, it’s the norm.”
But for Indians living in poverty, and those in rural communities outside of Delhi, the situation is bleak. Only around one-third of India’s 1.2 billion residents have electricity in their homes, and even fewer have air conditioning. Areas that do have power have reported high rates of power failure since the heat wave began, presumably a result of the increase in fans and power-hungry cooling systems. Public places with air conditioning such as offices or shopping malls, have become makeshift refuges from the heat.
Officials have encouraged such behavior, recommending that Indian citizens remain indoors in a cool place between 10 and 4 p.m., when the sun is at its most searing. But for many, taking the time off of work is not an option. In contrast, other professionals are refusing to work through the heat despite managerial orders – several taxi drivers have reportedly refused to be out in their cabs mid-day, in response to the deaths of two cabbies inside of their cars.
So far, the fatalities of the heat have been disproportionately poor, and most often older men. But thousands more have suffered heat-related ailments including dehydration, sunstroke, sunburn, delirium and nausea that have necessitated medical attention. The demand for treatment for such issues has become so intense that doctors are temporarily banned from taking leave until the heat wave subsides.
As the situation escalates, humanitarian concerns have grown. Government officials have pledged to pay a sort of relief payout to families of those who have died, and have set up temporary “water camps” for those in need. But at least some of these water access points have fallen into disrepair, causing the pumps to run dry. Impoverished entrepreneurs with water to spare have even taken to selling it on street corners. Food spoilage has also become a concern, since the heat is so intense that even newly-purchased items are quickly unusable after being inadvertently cooked.
Monsoon season in June has offered hope to the sun-sieged residents, but some early estimates suggest the monsoon levels will be lighter than past averages. While reservoir levels of stored water are sufficient for now, scientists predict more and more heat waves in the near future – and, like most symptoms of climate change, they will surely hit the poor hardest.