Climate Change

Heatwaves in India could soon break human survivability limit, says World Bank analysis

Poor, marginalised to be worst hit; Economic productivity to be jeopardised too

By Nandita Banerji
Published: Wednesday 07 December 2022
The heatwaves would be devastating for many poor and marginalised communities across India, who live in inadequately ventilated, hot and crowded homes without proper access to cooling. Photo: Wikimedia

A new report by the World Bank suggests India could soon become one of the first places in the world to experience heatwaves that break the human survivability limit.

Climate Investment Opportunities in India’s Cooling Sector said the country is experiencing higher temperatures that arrive earlier and stay far longer. India has witnessed a concurrent increase in meteorological droughts and heatwaves over the last 60 years, past studies have found. 

Read more: Unprecedented early heatwaves in India, Pakistan 30 times more likely in 2022 due to climate change: Scientists

The report was released during the two-day “India Climate and Development Partners’ Meet” being organised by the World Bank in partnership with the Kerala government.

India was plunged into the grip of a punishing early spring heatwave in April 2022 that brought the country to a standstill. Temperatures in the capital, New Delhi, topped 46 degrees Celsius.

The month of March, which witnessed extraordinary spikes in temperatures, was the hottest ever recorded, the report reminded. 

Soon India could become one of the first countries to experience heatwaves that break the human survivability limit, the report said, reminding that many climate scientists have long cautioned about rising temperatures across south Asia. 

The report said: 

In August 2021, the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned that the Indian subcontinent would suffer more frequent and intense heatwaves over the coming decade. 

“The G20 Climate Risk Atlas also warned in 2021 that heatwaves across India were likely to last 25 times longer by 2036-65 if carbon emissions remain high, as in the IPCC’s worst-case emission scenario,” it further said. 

The heatwaves would be devastating for many poor and marginalised communities across India, who live in inadequately ventilated, hot and crowded homes without proper access to cooling, the report added.

“Staying cool during extreme heat is about more than just comfort — it can constitute the precarious line between life and death,” it said. Only eight per cent of Indian households own air-conditioning units, according to an analysis presented in the India Cooling Action Plan (ICAP), 2019. 

Rising heat across India can jeopardise economic productivity too, the report warned. 

“Up to 75 per cent of India’s workforce, or 380 million people, depend on heat-exposed labour, at times working in potentially life-threatening temperatures. With heat-exposed working contributing to nearly half of the country’s Gross Domestic Product, the country is extremely vulnerable to job losses,” it said. 

Read more: Climate crisis: Expect more extreme heatwaves in near future

India’s long-term food security and public health security will depend on a reliable cold chain network, the analysis said. 

“The third largest producer of pharmaceuticals in the world, pre-COVID-19, India lost approximately 20 per cent of temperature-sensitive medical products and 25 per cent of vaccines due to broken cold chains, leading to losses of $313 million a year,” it  said. 

Unlocking opportunities to create a sustainable cooling strategy can help the country in its post-COVID recovery by boosting investments, creating jobs, reducing emissions, and securing the supply chains of medical care products, health infrastructure as well as food, it added. 

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