Heat waves follow a dry spell in Orissa and West Bengal, killing 80 people in April. Dust storms take Assam by surprise and Malwa scrambles for water. What's wrong with the weather?
Mercury rises early
|Khurda is the worst affected in Orissa, with 10 sunstroke deaths reported
|PHOTOGRAPHS AGNIMIRH BASU
The Chhotray household was in mourning. The floor of the house was half smeared with cow dung, part of the cleansing ritual for dashash, the puja offered 10 days after the death of a family member. Janaki Chhotray, 51, died of sunstroke on April 24. That day she got up early in the morning and started giving the floor a fresh coat of cow dung mixed with water and clay. This was in preparation of the death anniversary of her father-in-law. "I saw her fetching water repeatedly from the hand pump about 300 metres from the house in the scorching sun," said Runu, Janaki's sister-in-law.
At about 3.30 in the afternoon Janaki asked Runu to accompany her to the backyard to urinate. "She was walking ahead of me.Suddenly she buckled and fell. She was foaming at the mouth," recalled Runu. Janaki died instantly.
Her husband Raghab was then away collecting cashew fruits on the outskirts of the village, Betarjang, in Khurda district, one of the worst affected by heat wave in Orissa. Inside his laterite stone house with half-done roof, Raghab now squatted on the floor. "I can't think of life without her," muttered the 57-year-old. His two sons sell tea and bread in Chowdwar near Cuttack since the family owns barely half a hectare of land. Janaki was his sole companion. Besides running the house she used to dry and clean cashew fruits he brought home.
About 30 km from Betarjang, another family was grieving in Godipatna village. Bikram Dalei recalled that on March 17 his 59-year-old father Ballabh, a daily wager, had cycled five kilometres to Bhuasunipatna for work. "While returning in the afternoon his head reeled and he fell off his bicycle and died," said Bikram, sitting in their mud house with his wife and three children. "He had had only chuda (flattened rice) in the morning and was unable to withstand the heat."
Janaki and Ballabh are two of over 70 people reported to have died of sunstroke in March and April in Orissa. Ten deaths have been confirmed until April. Orissa is in the grip of an intense heat wave. Mercury soared to 46C in Talcher and Angul cities in April, while the high in Bhubaneswar for the month was 43C. A higher temperature of 45C has been recorded in April in the capital city only once in 1985, according to the India Meteorological Department. Even in March heat wave-like conditions prevailed in the state.
Heatstroke happens when the bo- dy's mechanism to rid itself of excessive heat is overwhelmed by a sudden onsla- ught of heat, and the death is often instantaneous (see 'Blood thickens'). Symptoms are delirium, severe dehydration, intense discomfort in the stomach and high body temperature, said Umakant Mishra, chief medical officer at Capital Hospital in Bhubaneswar. Elders and children are more vulnerable.
As a preventive measure the Orissa government declared schools closed for summer vacation on April 22, more than a week ahead of schedule. It has instructed districts to ensure that no one engages workers during peak noon hours from 11 am to 3 pm and passenger buses carry water and first-aid box.
Each district hospital has set aside a room fitted with an AC or cooler for sunstroke patients. Primary health centres (phcs) in blocks are also told to reserve at least one bed with a cooler or AC for sunstroke patients.
Doctors are taking a nap
Visits to health centres, however, revealed a not-so-reassuring picture.
|West Bengal seared
|Heat wave has killed nine people in West Bengal. The mercury reached 49C in Purulia district on April 21, four degrees above normal for this time of the year. Purulia received little rain in the past eight months. In Kolkata, the maximum temperature shot to 41C on April 19, five degrees above normal.
On April 30, when Down To Earth visited the phc at Janla on the outskirts of Bhubaneswar in the afternoon, its grille door was locked. Hospital attendant Rabindra Nath said people in the locality knew that the centre is closed in the afternoon, but they could approach him through the backdoor in case of an emergency. And what about those new to the area? He smiled sheepishly in reply.
phcs and community health centres work from 8 am till noon and 4 pm to 6 pm. They are closed during the peak heat hours. Bikas Patnaik, the officer running the heat wave control room at the state health directorate in Bhubaneswar, argued the doctors also needed rest.
Like S B Sahu did at the Botarma community health centre, where Janaki's death was confirmed as due to sunstroke. At 2 pm the resident doctor was sleeping in his house on the phc premises.
The cooler meant for sunstroke patients at the Janla phc was lying defunct in the chamber of Divyasingh Sahoo, in charge of the centre. The hospital attendant said the problem was with the plug, which could easily have been rectified. Sahoo said the cooler would be repaired but no serious sunstroke patient had come to the centre.
On April 21, the centre did receive one patient complaining of exhaustion and restlessness. Sahoo sent him back after check-up, saying he had nothing but acidity. The patient, 56-year-old Pitbas Biswal, died a few hours later.
|Buses are told to carry enough water and a first-aid box for passengers
A peon in the ncc office in Bhubaneswar, Biswal would every day take a bus up to Rajmahal Square in the city in blistering heat and then walk two kilometre up to his office at Nageshwar Tangi. After he came back from the health centre, he tried to rest but could not. "Biswal again started complaining of discomfort in the chest and restlessness," said his daughter Sabita.
Sahoo insisted there was nothing seriously wrong with Biswal when he came to the hospital. "His only problem was acidity, and I gave him medicine for that. I don't know what happened after that," said the doctor.
Capital Hospital in Bhubaneswar is slightly better equipped. It has an AC room with five beds for sunstroke victims. Another AC room close to the casualty ward is for observing such patients. According to the chief medical officer, the hospital receives two sunstroke patients daily, but no serious case.
Monitoring, control room style
But deaths are being reported from across the state. At the control rooms set up in the capital, officials are busy preparing dossiers. According to Sukdeb Sethi, state director of health, a control room has been opened in the office of the Integrated Disease Surveillance Project in Bhubaneswar to collect information on sunstroke deaths, analyse it and then disseminate it to districts.
|Purulia residents dig the riverbed for water
The Special Relief Commissioner's office also scans newspapers for information on sunstroke cases. "We pass them on to the district collectors for inquiry," said Anant Bijay Patnaik, officer-on-special duty. The department's primary concern, he said, was identifying victims of sunstroke for payment of Rs 10,000 compensation to the next of kin from the chief minister's relief fund.
But there is one thing that has esca- ped the administration's notice defunct hand pumps. Many hand pumps in villages are either lying defunct or not working properly. Janaki's family and neighbours are convinced that she died because of repeated trips to the faraway hand pump in hot afternoon. "We have only four hand pumps in Betarjang, of which three are not working," said Ramchandra Senapathy, a village elder.
It is the same situation in most villages in Khurda.At Siko, one of the largest villages in the district, people complained that a fourth of the 40-odd hand pumps installed by the administration in the village are not working. People in Lanjigarh block of drought-prone Kalahandi district and Janla also complained of defunct hand pumps and tube wells.
Rural development secretary S N Tripathy said only 10,000 to 12,000 of 272,000 tube wells in the state were not working. The department is repairing them on a war footing, he claimed.
Dry spell made it worse
It could have been done earlier. The signs of a crisis were visible. There has been scant rainfall since October. The meteorological department in Bhuba- neswar said the average rainfall in Orissa between October and December last year was 30 mm against the normal of 155.2 mm. Rainfall was practically nil in January and February this year, when it should have been over 30 mm. The rainfall between March 1 and April 27 this year was 6.3 mm, a ninth of the normal.
Absence of rainfall contributed to the hot spell, according to Mahalik and S C Sahu, director-in-charge of the Bhubaneswar Meteorological Office. The main culprit, though, was dry hot winds blowing from Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh in the north-west (see 'What's fanning heat waves').
Shrinkage of greenery, water bodies and wetlands that act as heat absorbers, are also to be blamed, said N K Mahalik, geology teacher retired from Utkal University in Bhubaneswar.
Had the administration got into action earlier, Janaki could have been saved the fatal trips to the distant hand pump.
Midmorning on March 6, swirling, yellowish clouds engulfed Guwahati, the largest city in the northeast. Freaky winds threw traffic out of gear, bent telephone and power lines and tossed hoardings into the air. Dust stung the eyes and the visibility dropped to 800 metres. Above the Lokapriya Gopinath Bordoloi International Airport, an Indian Airlines plane from Kolkata was hovering, waiting for a signal to land. The air traffic controller checked the conditions and sent it back to Kolkata because the minimum visibility for landing is 1,200 m. That afternoon three more planes were diverted to Kolkata.
Nine days later there was an action replay. Dust-laden winds, travelling at 65-70 km/hr, swept the city and four flights had to be diverted from the airport, where over 40 aircraft land and take off every day. This is the first time planes could not land at the airport due to dust storms, though high velocity winds have hit the city before, said Subhash Chandra Sharma, regional executive director, northeast, Airport Authority of India.
The dust storms followed a dry spell in Guwahati since November. In January there was no rainfall in Guwahati. In February too it was nil. Normally, it should have received 11.4 mm rainfall in January and 12.8 mm in February, according to the India Meteorological Department (imd). In fact, the entire northeast has received less than half the normal rainfall between November and March (see Deficit rainfall).
"It was more of a chain reaction--the dry spell gave rise to dusty conditions and finally to dust storms," said Deba Kanta Handique, director of the Regional Meteorological Centre in Guwahati. Many like Dulal Goswami, professor at the environment department of Guwahati University, believe local factors like reckless hill cutting, deforestation, destruction of wetlands and unplanned urbanization also contributed to dust storms.
The dry weather has also meant more forest fires in the region and a loss of crops. According to the chief conservator of forests in Mizoram, R C Thanga, an unprecedented over a thousand instances of forest fire have been reported from across the state by mid-April this year. He blamed both jhum (slash and burn) cultivation and the dry spell for the fires.
A forest fire in Sesawng village in Thingsulthliah block of Aizawl district killed a 45-year-old woman and her 10-year-old daughter on March 10. Two youths were killed when trying to douse fire in the reserve forest around Serkhan village of Tlangnuam block in Kolasib district. Nagaland also witnessed numerous forest fires in March.
Such weather is abnormal, said Handique. Weathermen blame the western disturbance, winds that bring winter rains in the northeast (see 'What's fanning heat waves' on p29). Between November 2008 and March Assam received 57.4 mm rainfall, 64 per cent less than the normal, according to imd. Rain towards the end of March provided some respite to the parched state, but arrived too late for farmers.
Tough to till
Assam farmers cultivating rabi crops and summer paddy, boro, sown in December, have suffered terribly due to the dry spell. Of 2.6 million hectares (ha) of cultivable land in Assam, summer paddy and rabi crops are cultivated in 0.4 million ha. Kaki village of Nagaon district, which is among the highest producers of winter paddy in the state, is feeling the impact. Farmers are investing over Rs 1,400 on diesel to irrigate a bigha (0.13 ha) with motor pumps. Earlier, the maximum they had to spend on diesel was Rs 800 for a bigha.
Kanti Das of Kaki, who has a little less than a hectare of land, produced 27 tonnes of potato per hectare last year. This year the yield has declined to 11 tonnes per hectare. "We spent more on diesel, tractor and fertilizer than we had ever done," said Kanti Das. Das had also grown beans and tomato. Last year, Das invested Rs 15,000 and earned over Rs 50,000; this year he invested Rs 20,000 but earned only Rs 25,000.
|A prolonged dry spell led to dusty conditions, which gave rise to dust storms
"For the first time I hired a tractor because the earth was too hard to sow seeds. I also used more fertilizer this year hoping the yield would increase but it didn't," he said.
Dubai Borah of Kamalabari village in Jorhat district had grown mustard on 1.3 ha. He could produce only 50 kg of mustard oil against 200 kg last year. "I am in debt," he said.
Agriculture officials, however, insist that production in the state will not be hampered, though the cost of cultivation will increase by 120 per cent on account of purchase of diesel and hiring of tractors. "The summer paddy and rabi crops are cultivated only in 10 districts and a few other pockets in the state, and there are facilities like shallow tube wells in those areas," said Durgeshwar Thakuria, sub-divisional agriculture officer, Guwahati.
Farmers don't agree. "Production would not have been hampered had the government announced a relief package for farmers," said Akhil Gogoi, secretary of the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti, a farmers' association in Assam.
The tea industry is also hard hit. One of the major sources of revenue for the state, Assam tea accounts for 51 per cent of the total tea produced in the country.
Under normal weather about 8 per cent tea is harvested in the first picking season of March-April. Till end April the decline in production was almost 70 per cent, said Ranjan Das, deputy director of the Tea Board, Assam. "This is one of the worst crises," said Abhijit Sarma, chairperson of Assam Tea Pla- nters' Association. "One of my gardens, which had produced 50,000 kg of tea by March last year, is yet to start production." Small tea growers have appealed to the Tea Board for financial assistance.
Before eight in the morning in Ujjain city, it is difficult to spot a bicycle on the roads that does not have two, four or even six water cans dangling from it. The cans are suspended from metal hooks, not clumsy ropes, indicating that the water crisis is not a temporary one. In Dewas two people were killed in a fig- ht over water. In Indore, fights were averted because municipality water tan- kers were accompanied by armed police.
The water crisis in the Malwa region is becoming desperate by the day. People's anger against the failure of the municipalities to provide water reached a peak in February-March. By the end of April, with the mercury soaring to 42-45C and no solution in sight, they settled down into a sullen resignation. "You can't do anything about it," said Rajubai Malwi, a resident of Bada Bajar area of Dewas. She had been sitting in a queue before a municipality bore well for two hours under the sun for a bonus of free water. Bonus because her family of five meets most of its water needs for three months every year by buying water at Rs 2 for a 35-litre can from a neighbour's bore well. It is cheaper than the market rate of Rs 5, but the cost still comes to Rs 250-300 per month, nearly a tenth of her husband's Rs 3,500 salary.
In Pardeshipura locality of Indore, Chhotelal, a construction labourer, was doing the rounds of nearby localities with a handcart loaded with cans. "There is a wedding in my house in two days," he said. "If I can't find enough by tomorrow, I will have to spend Rs 400 on a private tanker."
It is not just poor localities. In posh Professor's Colony in Ujjain, no one had time to talk because a water tanker had come after six days. Everyone was busy filling up everything from 200-litre drums to two-litre paint buckets.
|Indore's thirsty throng a bore well
At Saket Nagar in Dewas, a bore well supplies drinking water twice a week. For non-drinking needs, private tankers are the only option. Ravi and his nine-member family have to buy tankers of 6,000 litres each at Rs 300 a tanker. "We spend Rs 1,000-1,500 per month on water," he said. He also pays for pumping water to overhead tanks.
Reservoirs have dried up
Most reservoirs in the region dried up as early as December following poor rains. Dewas received 406 mm of rain last year, which is half the normal. Ujjain had 686 mm against an average of 902 mm, according to the met department.
In Ujjain, the water crisis peaked in March, when the drinking-water supply from the dried-up Gambhir reservoir dropped to once in 12 days. The municipality then laid a 24-km pipeline at the cost of Rs 15.9 crore from a dam constructed on the Chambal river by Grasim textile company.
The Gambhir reservoir has a capacity of about 64 million cubic metre, and the city's annual requirement is 31.6 million cu m, according to the city's collectorate. But in the second week of September 2008 the reservoir had only 11 million cu m water. At the same time the previous year it was full.
Ujjain-based economist and water expert Ram Pratap Gupta, however, pointed out that the reservoir depleted partly because of water theft by farmers, who have dug illegal underground pipelines on being denied water.
Indore became the first city in India to declare a water emergency in February this year (see 'Malwa is thirsty', Down To Earth, February 1-15, 2009). The water supply from the Yashwant Sagar reservoir, which used to meet 30 per cent of the city's need, has stopped. The city is now solely dependent on the Narmada phase 2 water distribution network and has pegged hopes on phase 3. Many doubt the river has enough water for the third phase.
In Dewas that depends on bore wells, the supply remains "once in four-five days", according to mayor Sharad Pachunkar. This despite procuring water from Indore through a 130 km pipeline.
Scant rainfall only worsened the crisis. The root cause of water stress in the region is overexploitation of groundwater and absence of recharge to compensate, said Ravindranath Singh, the regional director of the Central Ground Water Board (cgwb). This summer by April, about 1,000 bore wells were given official clearance in Ujjain. This despite the groundwater level dropping from 11 m in January to 16 m in April.
So Ujjain residents should just keep practising balancing cans on bicycle.
What's fanning heat waves
Scientists pore over data to explain the unusual weather
They can't quite put their finger on it. But weather scientists know several factors are at play, disturbing the air circulation pattern over India. Circulation of air helps distribute heat over earth, thus, any change in it throws up weather surprises. This year there were many. Heat waves scorched Orissa and West Bengal in April--it usually happens in May or June. Winter rains gave a miss to the northeast. By the end of the month the heat wave was reported to have killed over 70 people in Orissa and nine in West Bengal.
In Purulia in West Bengal the mercury soared to 49C on April 21, four degrees more than the average maximum for the month there (see Definition in degrees). In Orissa it touched 46C on April 20, six degrees more than the average maximum.
Weathermen say a cyclonic storm called Bijli that formed in the Bay of Bengal around April 15, was responsible for the hot spell. As it moved towards Bangladesh it intersected and cut off cool easterly winds blowing from the Bay of Bengal to Orissa and West Bengal. The easterly winds keep the eastern coast cool, but in their absence north-western desert winds blowing from Rajasthan prevailed, heating the coastal states (see map).
"Something similar happened last year. Temperature in Orissa shot to 45C in the last week of April. That year too a cyclonic storm in the Bay of Bengal cut off the easterlies.
"Similar events in two continuous years do not establish a trend, but they do give us enough reason to investigate whether there is a pattern in cyclones cutting off easterlies and leading to heat waves," said M Rajeevan, scientist at the National Atmospheric Research Laboratory in Tirupati.
Yet cyclonic storms are only a partial explanation of heat waves. Hot spells are increasing in other parts of the country as well. Last year in mid-April, maximum temperatures over south-western and central parts of India ranged between 40C and 43C, one to two degrees above normal.
Heat waves on the rise
The number, duration and area of spread of heat waves in India increased sharply during 1991-2000 in comparison to the earlier two decades, according to a study by the India Meteorological Department or imd.
The department has clubbed its observation centres into 35 subdivisions. On compiling daily data on heat wave conditions over subdivisions, the researchers found that between 1991 and 2000 an average of 22.7 subdivisions in the country were hit by heat waves per year, while between 1971 and 1980 an average of 9.9 subdivisions were hit by heat waves per year. During 1981-1990 the average was 7.3.
The study, published in the April 2004 issue of imd journal Mausam, showed more areas suffered frequent heat waves in 1991-2000 compared to earlier decades. Twenty-five subdivisions went through more than 15 spells of heat waves in 1991-2000. While in the previous two decades two subdivisions recei-ved more than 15 spells of heat waves.
It is the same with the duration of heat waves. During 1991-2000 the highest duration of heat waves was 16 days, while in the previous decade the longest heat wave was of nine days and a decade before that, 11 days.
"Though we have not studied it thoroughly, our observation indicates the increase was steeper in this decade," said D S Pai, lead author of the study and scientist at imd in Pune.
His observations were corroborated by a study by Rajeevan.
It said the number of heat wave days per year in central and north-west India increased from three to 12 between 1969 and 2005. But we are yet to find the reason behind the increase.
Warming in the background
One reason could be different parts of the earth warming at different rates; it is likely to bring frequent changes in air circulation, said Rajeevan (see 'Rain Shocked', Down to Earth, March 1-15, 2009). And the different rate of heating could be due to both local factors and global warming, said Pai. The decade 1991-2000, during which the frequency of heat waves increased sharply, was the warmest in the past 140 years.
Pai explained that an anticyclone is prevailing over India, with its centre hovering around Rajasthan and a little north of it. Anticyclones are centres of high pressure from where winds blow out in every direction. The anticyclone over India sends warm winds from north-west to central and western India, causing heat waves. "Since the winds are warmer than earlier, heat waves are more intense," Pai added.
Scientists say the anticyclone was also partially responsible for heat waves on the eastern coast of India. "Even though Bijli cut off the cool easterlies, the heat wave would not have been this intense if there was no anticyclonic wind pattern prevailing over India," said A K Srivastava, another scientist at imd in Pune.
So the anticyclone over India and the cyclonic storm over the Bay of Bengal together led to heat waves.
But why did heat waves come so early? They are--or were--rare in April. Rajeevan offers an explanation "The cyclone may have developed in April because of early rise of temperature which also heated the sea."
Summers setting in early
Meteorological data of the past one hundred years shows March and April are warming faster than May and June, which are the hottest summer months.
The average temperature for March has increased by 0.76C over the last century; that for April has increased by 0.58C; and in both May and June the increase has been 0.17C. Most of this increase has taken place over the last three decades, said Srivastava.
A study published in Current Science in 2007 said the increase was sharper in north India than in the south. "In north-west part of the country and northern Maharashtra, temperatures in the first fortnight of April have risen significantly in the past one hundred years. It is more than the rest of the country but we have to make some more calculations before coming to any conclusion about the exact rise," Srivastava said.
Preliminary calculations by D R Pattanaik, scientist at imd in Delhi, show that in coastal Andhra Pradesh, May temperatures in the past decade have risen significantly, while temperatures in June have dropped somewhat. But in Assam, temperatures from February to June have risen similarly (see graphs).
|Spells of 10 days or more
|More places are now affected by longer spells of heat waves
|Source D S Pai and others, Mausam, April 2004, Decadal variation in the heat and cold waves over India during 1971-2000; * Met department has divided India into 35 subdivisions; ** in one subdivision
Pattanaik said any conclusion about summer setting in early required station-wise analysis of imd data as against the subdivision data he had analysed.
The April heat wave in eastern India was preceded by a long dry spell in the northeast. A wind called western disturbance that brings moisture from the Mediterranean Sea, moves from the west to the east of the country, causing winter rains.
Assam receives an average of 25 mm rainfall per month in winter. But this year there was negligible rainfall between November and February. In March, Assam experienced four severe dust storms.
Some scientists have attributed the abnormally dry winters to lesser number of western disturbances reaching the region. Rajendra Hathwar, additional director general at imd Pune, explained this year most of the western disturbances had a more northerly track. The winds showered rains over Jammu and Kashmir but even Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Punjab and adjoining states had deficient rainfall this winter. They touched Arunachal Pradesh to some extent and should have affected Assam in end February and March, but did not.
Srivastava said this may be due to abnormal heating of the Tibetan plateau. The plateau was warmer than normal by two degrees this February, added Pattanaik. When a plateau heats up winds over it move horizontally, unlike upwards in the plains. This creates a high pressure over the plateau, which then shoves away winds. "So the western disturbance avoided the plateau and flowed north of it," he said.
But scientists have not studied whether this is a regular phenomenon. "There is no study on this aspect," said Rajeevan.
According to Hathwar, another source of rains in the northeast in November is the cyclones that sometimes form over the Bay of Bengal and move towards West Bengal or Bangladesh. After shedding the first showers there, they cause good rainfall over northeastern states. In November last year it did not happen.
Srivastava said lack of winter cyclones is not a trend. "Tropical cyclones in the peak cyclone months of May and November have increased, while those occurring in the rest of the year have decreased," he added.
So now we have more intense rainfall (see 'Rain shocked', Down To Earth, March 1-15, 2009), more heat waves and sudden dry periods taking us unawares. While scientists struggle with data to find out how much more could come upon us, the changes are taking place faster than they can predict.
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