Rajesh Kumar Singh/AP
MUMBAI, India — Summer has arrived in South Asia VERY early.
A heat wave has pushed temperatures above 120 °F (50 °C) in some areas. Some schools have closed early for the summer. Dozens of people have died from heat stroke.
The region is already heavily affected by climate change. Extreme heat is common in May. But not in April and March, which were the hottest in much of India for more than a century.
“It’s scorching hot! It’s also humid, which makes it very difficult,” Chrisell Rebello, 37, told NPR in line outside a Mumbai ice cream parlor at 11 p.m. “We need lots of cold drinks, air conditioning and multiple bathrooms. one day.”
Only a fraction of Indians, mostly the wealthy, have air conditioning. Instead, people soak rags in water and hang them on doors and windows.
Still, electric fans and air conditioning have pushed India’s demand for electricity to a record high.
The problem is that 70% of India’s electricity comes from coal. So the government is converting passenger trains to freight services, to speed up the supply of coal to beleaguered power plants, and also importing more coal from abroad.
And the rolling blackouts are hurting industrial production.
In the short term, experts say India has no choice but to burn coal to keep fans and air conditioners running. But in the long term, it needs to transition to renewable energy, to avoid a vicious cycle of warming, says Ulka Kelkar, a Bangalore-based economist and climate change expert at the World Resources Institute.
“[With] heat plus humidity, sometime [it] it becomes almost impossible for the organs of the human body to function normally,” explains Kelkar. “Basically, the body just can’t cool itself down, and a large fraction of our population in India still works outside in the fields, in construction of buildings, in factories that are not cooled.”
More than a billion people are at risk of heat-related illnesses in South Asia. Hospitals are preparing special rooms.
This heat wave has also hit at a critical time for the region’s wheat harvest. In the Indian state of Punjab, the breadbasket of the country, farmers complain of reduced crop yields and lower profits.
“Due to the intense heat, the grain we are harvesting is shriveled,” a Punjabi farmer named Major Singh told local television.
This is exactly when India was hoping to boost wheat exports to help offset the shortfall in global grain supply due to the war in Ukraine.
Suruchi Bhadwal, director of earth sciences and climate change at The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), says the disappointing wheat harvest may be a harbinger of things to come, if countries don’t do all they can. to reduce carbon emissions and limit warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius, in line with United Nations recommendations.
“India is already giving us a warning bell,” says Bhadwal. “And every country must realize that the warning signs will not be given to us forever.”