India tries to adapt to extreme heat but is paying a heavy price

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NEW DELHI — Vigyan Shukla, a 45-year-old farmer on north India’s plains, has known heat all his life. This is not the case.

When temperatures began to soar in Uttar Pradesh state several weeks ago, Shukla’s wheat crops began to shrivel and his cows provided less milk. When the mercury hit 117 degrees Fahrenheit late last month, a record high in Shukla’s town of Banda, it became punishing for humans, too: Seven of his 25 farmhands came down with diarrhea, a symptom of heat stroke. Others refused to stay outside past 10 a.m.

“People are just not able to work,” said Shukla, who cut hours for his farmworkers during this year’s wheat and lentil harvest. People can work through the heat if it is only a few days. But with this longer wave, they’re falling sick.”

Typically, heat waves in India affect only part of the country, occur in the summer and only last for a week or so. This spring, however, a series of heat waves in the early stages of the season has been more intense and longer than ever before. India had its hottest March ever. The hottest April in India was followed by the Northwest and Central India.

“This probably would be the most severe heat wave in March and April in the entire [recorded] history” of India, said Vimal Mishra, a climate scientist at Indian Institute of Technology Gandhinagar.

Despite the unprecedented heat, fewer people appear to be dying. Heat waves in 2015 and 1998 took thousands of lives, but the India Meteorological Department has reported only a handful of deaths so far.

Across India, extreme heat has forced farmers, construction workers and students to rearrange their lives, showing how daily routines are changing — and work productivity is declining — in countries that are already among the poorest and hottest in the world.

In recent weeks, education officials in nine northern states have cut the length of classes in half so that students can be dismissed by 11 a.m. Some schools have closed their doors earlier than others. Large government-run programs for rural employment required that all workers who were digging ditches or canals must stop by noon.

These shifts may be small on their own, but taken together they have far-reaching impacts. India loses more than 100 billion hours of labor per year because of extreme heat, the most of any country in the world, according to research published in Nature Communications.

“We’re reaching some of these critical thresholds in Southwest and South Asia, where people can no longer efficiently cool themselves and it’s almost deadly just to be outside, much less work,” said Luke Parsons, one of the paper’s co-authors. “It’s a really major issue in terms of who bears the cost of climate change first.”

After the heat eased briefly last week, a new wave began over the weekend that will last for several days. The highest temperatures will be felt on Wednesday and Thursday in northwest India in the states of Rajasthan and Punjab, but much of the country will endure temperatures over 104 degrees Fahrenheit (40 Celsius).

Researchers say climate change is playing a key role. One study showed human activity made severe heat waves in central and mid-southern India twice as likely during the 20th century. Under future climate change scenarios, the risk of severe heat waves could increase by 10 times this century.

India is trying to adapt.

Renu Shekhar, a parent in the city of Jaipur, which hit 110 degrees on April 29, said her 12-year-old daughter Purvai can go to school for only three hours every morning under new rules set by the city. The school’s morning assemblies and sports have been cancelled. Classes are only half the length inside this school. It has no air conditioning and no AC.

Shekhar said she worried her daughter would fall behind in her studies. Purvai enjoyed spending more time outside, but she missed basketball, soccer and hide-and seek.

“The children are so weak that we can’t even stand outside or play with friends,” Purvai said. “We have to spend all our days in homes only with board games.”

But staying inside can put undue strain on the country’s energy grid. India’s peak power demand hit records three times in a single week in April as those who could afford air conditioners cranked them up.

“Running AC has a negative impact on the climate change problem,” said Mishra, the climate scientist. You want to adapt but you endanger mitigation. This is the classic problem. We are using more energy to adapt.”

But the vast majority of Indians have no access to air conditioners, and in a country where nearly half the population works outdoors — mostly in farming and construction — the government is scrambling to limit the effects of prolonged exposure.

The Health Ministry issued an advisory last month to all employers requiring them to install temporary shelters and limit hours for new workers. The Health Ministry issued an advisory to all employers last month requiring them to install temporary shelters and limit the hours of new workers. They also advised citizens to avoid heat stress by staying indoors between noon and 3 p.m. Recently, the country’s hospitals received orders to examine their stock of intravenous drips and ice packs.

Several states have introduced changes to a vast government program known as the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), which offers minimum-wage jobs to more than 50 million households every year.

Raghvendra Tewari, a local official overseeing NREGA programs in Banda, set a target of about 6,000 workers digging canals and ditches. But only 2,000 showed up during the peak of the recent heat wave, he said, and organizers have stopped taking daily attendance. Instead of working 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., teams now start around dawn and disband by 11 a.m.

“The heat is never so bad that we’ve had to do this before,” Tewari said.

The extreme heat is straining not only farmers but also their crops, as high temperatures coincided with the final weeks of the planting season, when grains need cool weather to mature. Devinder Sharma is an expert in agricultural policy and said that 25% of Indian wheat could die from heat.

The world’s second-most-populous country isn’t on the verge of food insecurity, Sharma said, but could face an emergency if the wheat crop falls short again next year: “What happened this year was a clear sign that if there is a repeat, India will be standing with a begging bowl.”

Shukla, the farmer in Banda, is already seeing the effects on his withering wheat crop. His income this year fell by almost $40,000, he estimated, and he has had to scale back plans for family weddings.

But the greatest burden has fallen on those in the fields. Shukla’s farm had many workers, including children and women, who were covered with umbrellas and kept their heads warm by wrapping towels around them. They also slept in straw- and bamboo-made sheds. This extreme heat was not protected.

“People were fainting, coming down with fever,” he said. It’s alarming. It’s only happening because of the temperature.”

Patel reported from Washington. This report was contributed by Jason Samenow from Washington.

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