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A lion at Lahore Zoo in Pakistan was given a slab of ice to cool down during the intense heat PA Images
In the heat of it

Persistent heatwave in India and Pakistan highlights climate crisis devastation

The extended hot and dry weather has consequences for water shortages, energy supply, and air quality.

BLISTERING HEAT HITTING South Asia over the last two months has persisted into this week, creating increasingly more difficult conditions.

Both India and Pakistan have recorded Celsius temperatures in the high 40s that far surpass expectations for spring, adding to a body of evidence pointing towards the devastating impacts of climate change.

April was Pakistan’s second-driest month since 1961, with many areas experiencing “extreme[ly] deficient rainfall”, and the hottest April that the country has recorded in those 60 years.

In India, average maximum temperatures were at their highest of any March in 122 years, with intense heat affecting even the northernmost region.

Deaths due to heatwaves in India have increased by more than 60% since 1980, according to its Ministry of Earth Sciences.

The extended hot and dry weather has a multitude of consequences, with a lack of water hitting reservoirs and affecting the growth of crops and orchards.

In Pakistan, the public has been asked to make “judicious” use of water “in all aspects of life” and to avoid unnecessary exposure to direct sunlight.

india-power-crisis A section of the River Yamuna in India on 2 May 2022 where the river bed almost entirely dried up Manish Swarup / PA Images Manish Swarup / PA Images / PA Images

The melting of snow and ice on mountains risks triggering floods; air quality has worsened; and large areas of land are at risk of extreme fires.

An important bridge on a highway linking Pakistan and China collapsed due to a glacial lake bursting and flooding, causing the bridge to buckle and fall when the current battered its pillars.

The northern Indian state of Himachal Pradesh usually experiences rain, hail and some snow in higher areas around this time of year, but parts of it have had no precipitation in two months and hundreds of forest fires have broken out in recent weeks. 

Secretary General of the World Meteorological Organization Professor Petteri Taalas explained that heatwaves “have multiple and cascading impacts not just on human health, but also on ecosystems, agriculture, water and energy supplies and key sectors of the economy”.

“It is premature to attribute the extreme heat in India and Pakistan solely to climate change. However, it is consistent with what we expect in a changing climate,” Professor Taalas said in a statement.

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

The higher temperatures have increased demand for energy and a shortfall in energy supply has caused power outages, further exacerbating the effects of the heatwave.

India has granted a “special dispensation” to the Ministry of Coal to relax certain environmental compliance rules to allow mines to operate at increased capacities in an effort to restore supply.

However, falling back on coal to assuage the effects of the heatwave is no relief for climate scientists, who have identified that burning fossil fuels like coal is a driver of climate change and more severe extreme weather events.

Climate crisis

Although it is too early to say definitively whether the extreme heat in the region is solely caused by climate change, as Professor Taalas of the WMO pointed out, it is known that the climate crisis is causing heatwaves to happen more frequently and to be more intense when they occur.

A report by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change last year found that human-caused climate change is already affecting many weather and climate extremes across the entire globe. Those extremes include events like heatwaves, floods, droughts and storms.

The IPCC said the scale of recent changes to the climate system is “unprecedented” over hundreds and thousands of years and that human influence is the primary driver of global warming.

“Deep reductions” in greenhouse gas emissions are crucial to limit rising temperatures and prevent global catastrophes. 

To determine whether a specific weather event was influenced by climate change, scientists can run a model to look at different scenarios of what the world would be like if humans had not burnt fossil fuels or produced greenhouse gases.

It allows them to study whether a heatwave, a storm or a cold event, for instance, would be as probable or as intense in a world without human interference on the climate.

Speaking to The Journal earlier this year, Dr Friederike Otto of World Weather Attribution (WWA), which analyses links between climate and weather, said that heatwaves have been made “more likely, more intense, because of climate change”.

“For heatwaves, climate change is really an absolute gamechanger and often makes the events orders of magnitude more likely,” Dr Otto said.

Research like the work done by WWA is a recently-developed field becoming more prevalent internationally, but a recent investigation by The Journal found the Irish government has no plans to drive studies on the role of climate change in specific extreme events in Ireland in the near future. 

In Europe, the Copernicus Climate Change Service reported a record level of extreme weather last year, including the warmest summer and hottest day ever registered in Europe – 48.8C in Sicily, Italy.

“2021 was a year of extremes including the hottest summer in Europe, heatwaves in the Mediterranean, flooding and wind droughts in western Europe,” the service’s director Carlo Buontempo said in a statement.

“This shows that the understanding of weather and climate extremes is becoming increasingly relevant for key sectors of society.”

Additional reporting by AFP

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