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Dozens Dead as Heatwave in India Shows No Signs of Relenting

Published: May 10, 2022
An auto rickshaw driver drinks water as he takes a break on a hot summer day in New Delhi on May 9, 2022. (Photo by Sajjad HUSSAIN / AFP) (Photo by SAJJAD HUSSAIN/AFP via Getty Images)

Heat stroke is suspected to have claimed the lives of at least 25 people in India’s western state of Maharashtra,  the highest toll in five years, due to a heatwave that settled over the country at the end of March that is showing no signs of relenting. Authorities say that the deaths occurred in the more rural areas of Maharashtra, India’s richest state. 

Pradeep Awate, a Maharashtra health official, told Reuters, “These are suspected heat stroke deaths.”

While heatwaves are common in India during the months of May and June, this year the heat settled in at the end of March considerably earlier than what is typical. 

The early heat marked the hottest March in the country in more than 100 years and in April the country recorded unusually high temperatures as well which forced schools to close and sent people home from work. 

Scientists are linking the early onset of intense heat to climate change, saying that more than a billion people in India and Pakistan are in some way vulnerable to extreme heat and that India should brace for more fatalities as temperatures in the country continue to hover around the 40°C (104°F) mark in numerous regions. 

Water crisis

The heat is playing havoc with key infrastructure in the country triggering both an energy crisis and a water shortage.

Following a few days of reprieve, the heat in New Delhi is back to dangerous levels once again and it’s impacting the poorest citizens the most. 

Gopal Solanki, a resident of an urban slum in New Delhi told Reuters that people in his slum are spending upwards of three hours a day simply waiting for water. “There is an obvious shortage of water due to the heat. The consumption of water increases – there is a rise in usage but the supply of water is very limited and that creates difficulties,” he said.

Many regions across the country — home to the second largest population in the world — are also reporting diminishing water supplies and the conditions are expected to worsen until the annual monsoon season arrives in June and July. 

Water availability and quality has been stressed by the country’s large population and rural areas as well as areas that have recently experienced significant growth are bearing the worst conditions. 

While some improvements to the country’s water infrastructure have been made, according to the Water Project,  “many other water sources are contaminated with both bio and chemical pollutants, and over 21% of the country’s diseases are water-related. Furthermore, only 33% of the country has access to traditional sanitation.”

Energy crisis

As Indians turn up the air-conditioning to seek refuge from the intense heat, the usage is placing significant pressure on the country’s electricity system causing hours-long blackouts that are halting manufacturing lines and triggering street protests. 

“Electricity outages and curbs have spread across more than half of all states and the nation’s coal-dominated energy system is expected to come under further strain as power demand tops a recent record high in the coming weeks,” Time reported. 

Aggravating the situation are diminishing coal supplies as well as soaring costs for both coal and oil. 

Sumant Sinha, chairman of ReNew Energy Global Plc recently said in an interview that conditions in the country are “becoming a difficult situation,” and that the “whole summer will be a test.”

India relies on coal for more than 70 percent of its electricity generation and it’s failing to keep pace with the country’s unprecedented energy demand due to the heatwave.

Logistic snarls and a lack of railway carriages to transport fuel from mines to power plants are only making matters worse.

Aditi Nayar, an economist with ICRA Ltd. told Time, “If power supply is curtailed to the industrial sector, it could delay the recovery in the manufacturing sector by at least one more quarter.”

The country has seen its stockpiles of coal at its coal-fired power stations plummet more than 14 percent since the beginning of April, leaving some 100 power plants with critical supply levels, according to the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis.

Reserves are expected to dwindle further as high demand continues.

Shailendra Dubey, chairman at the All India Power Engineers Federation told Time, “If coal stockpiles continue to deplete at this rate, we’re going to see a full-blown power crisis across the country.”

Earlier in May, electricity demand in the country hit a record of 207.1 gigawatts and it’s expected to rise to 220 gigawatts over the next two months. 

Prices for electricity on India’s Energy Exchange  have risen to 10 rupees (13 cents) per kilowatt hour, almost triple the price it was in January. The soaring prices prompted the industry regulator to cap prices. 
In total, at least 16 of India’s 28 states have been experiencing power outages between two and 10 hours a day according to a tweet by Ashok Gehlot, chief minister of Rajasthan.