India and Pakistan's extreme heatwaves a warning sign for the future

Experts say poorer communities could be hit hard by the wide-ranging effects of climate change

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India and Pakistan are well used to surging temperatures at this time of the year as baking hot summers precede the monsoon season.

Recent conditions have been particularly challenging, however, with northwest and central India recording their hottest April for 122 years.

The high pressure system behind the heatwave in India has also meant parts of Pakistan have endured 50°C temperatures, causing one resident to tell the country’s media it was “like living in hell”.

Daytime temperatures have often been between 5°C and 8°C higher than average for the time of year.

Experts have raised concern over whether the two nations are equipped to deal with increasingly extreme weather.

The secretary general of the World Meteorological Organisation, Prof Petteri Taalas, said in a recent online statement the “extreme heat in India and Pakistan” was “consistent with what we expect in a changing climate”.

“Heatwaves are more frequent and more intense and starting earlier than in the past,” he said.

Indian heatwaves on the rise

Many studies have highlighted the issue. A recent Indian government report, Assessment of Climate Change over the Indian Region, said there were more “warm extremes” in the country, and temperatures for the warmest day, warmest night and coldest night had all increased.

The trend is continuing, with the report saying the length and frequency of pre-monsoon heatwaves was likely to “substantially increase” this century.

“The change in the climate conditions, the disruption of the water cycles with increased temperatures from CO2, is leading to an increasingly unstable environment,” said Prof Walter Leal, professor of climate change management at the Hamburg University of Applied Sciences in Germany, and of environment and technology at Manchester Metropolitan University in the UK.

“The whole system that was stable is no longer stable. It’s very erratic. Now it’s a heatwave, but it could equally be a flood.”

Vulnerable communities pay the price

Many people in India and Pakistan, and other developing nations, depend on farming and other types of work, such as fishing and forestry, that are very sensitive to the effects of climate change.

While poorer communities in countries like India may have a history of coping with heatwaves and floods, they can be more vulnerable because of the lack of access to water, to sanitation and to healthcare, said Prof Lyla Mehta, a professorial fellow in the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex in the UK.

As a result, extreme weather can create myriad “knock-on problems”, such as inadequate clean water supplies, causing disease outbreaks.

“The intense heat can affect other things – critical infrastructure, agriculture, industry, and there could be health impacts. People could fall ill,” said Prof Mehta, who carried out fieldwork in India for the length of her career and who co-edited the book, The Politics of Climate Change and Uncertainty in India.

“You can have drought and flooding within a few months. That’s happened in parts of western India.”

Those who are already marginalised and poor – the type of communities “completely ignored by global elites” – become more vulnerable, said Prof Mehta.

“There are large populations that lack basic water at the best of times, let alone due to climate change,” she said. “Their interests need to be up front. You have to commit to action. Often it’s not really seeking to enhance social justice or climate justice.”

Could tough climate fuel migration?

There is “a lot of uncertainty” in climate, so caution is needed in attributing all extreme weather events to climate change, Prof Mehta said.

But she said there were risks that water scarcity, for example, could make some areas uninhabitable, forcing people to move.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has, likewise, warned that parts of India could become unlivable if global temperature increases exceeded 1.5 °C.

In line with this, the population density that particular areas on the Indian subcontinent support could fall because of climate change, according to Dr Nasser Karami, a climatologist and former associate professor at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.

“If it was 100 million, the next decade it will be 90 million, in the next it will be 80 million,” he said, adding that this could cause increased immigration from India and Pakistan.

If livelihoods are destroyed, it could even fuel extremism, he said, with people feeling “they have no good opportunity for life”.

Less well off nations find it more difficult to make the kinds of investments required to cope. So there is often “poor resilience” in dealing with climate change, Prof Leal said.

“If a heatwave was to hit Germany or Dubai or the US, people can buy air conditioners so they’re not completely vulnerable,” he said.

“Here in Europe, if the water table rises, we build higher dykes. They’re exposed. It means the problems are worse than in the temperate regions.

“The situation across the developing world is so [difficult]. It could equally be Ethiopia or Kenya or Sudan, where there’s a low capability of resilience.”

In terms of development that could help to mitigate the effects of climate change, Prof Mehta said there was a tendency to impose “top-down” measures that may benefit “corporate elites and industrialists” but not local people.

“We don’t want solutions that will support the cement lobby,” she said. “We need solutions that will support local livelihoods and put their interests upfront.”

Prof Lelieveld suggested the authorities in India should also play a greater role in trying to curb the country’s own carbon emissions.

There are more than 280 active coal-fired power stations in India, the second-largest number globally (China has more rhan 1,000), and dozens more are under construction or on the drawing board.

Government must take action

While the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the German Chancellor Olaf Scholz pledged to co-operate on climate change when Mr Modi recently visited Berlin, Prof Lelieveld feels action is lacking

“I would like the Indian government to put its money where its mouth is to a larger extent, especially with regard to climate change,” he said.

“You have to adapt, but you also have to prevent. I don’t see a lot of that in India.”

As the world grapples with cutting carbon emissions, developing nations such as India and Pakistan face the prospect of ever-increasing difficulties caused by climate change.

“These climatic conditions are getting worse and worse. It’s not getting better,” Dr Karami said.

Updated: May 08, 2022, 3:00 AM