(Bloomberg Businessweek) — For the last six months, one-eighth of humanity has been engulfed in unforgiving heat.
South Asia is known for its hot summers. But record-breaking temperatures arrived early this year, in the normally cool month of March. For days at a stretch, huge swathes of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Sri Lanka endured readings higher than 40C (104F).
The heat waves claimed 280 lives in India between March and May, according to a partial tally of 16 states. (Other countries have not produced official figures.) Coupled with below-normal rainfall, the record temperatures withered crops and turned forests into tinder. Despite the arrival of the seasonal monsoons in late May, the northern plains of India and parts of Pakistan have continued to suffer higher-than-normal temperatures and humidity.
The 1.9 billion people who inhabit the Indian subcontinent are waking up to the possibility that punishing heat may be the new normal. “This is not a blip,” says Chandni Singh, one of the authors of the UN-backed Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s sixth assessment report, which focused on adaptation. The temperatures are “in line with what we expect under human-induced climate change.” A research paper published in May posited that this year’s heat waves have been made 30 times more likely by climate change.
In 2015, India announced it was creating a National Adaptation Fund for Climate Change with an initial allocation of 3.5 billion rupees ($44 million). Yet budget appropriations have steadily declined over the past five years as the government turned its focus to raising money through the sale of green bonds and what it calls blended finance, a mix of public and private funding. Pakistan formally began work on drafting its own national adaptation plan in June of last year.
Asia’s extreme temperatures, as well as the unprecedented heat wave that recently swept across parts of Europe, could shape conversations about how the costs of battling, as well as adapting to, climate change should be apportioned at the next phase of global climate talks in Egypt in November.
At a United Nations-sponsored meeting in Copenhagen 2009, rich countries responsible for 79% of global emissions pledged to marshal $100 billion a year in climate aid by 2020 to help poorer ones transition to cleaner sources of energy and to protect themselves against growing dangers from heat waves, droughts, wildfires, and floods. Wealthy nations have contributed only $20.1 billion so far to fund adaptation efforts in developing nations, while larger sums—about $80 billion—have been pledged for mitigation.
Globally, developing nations including India and Pakistan may need $300 billion by the end of this decade and $500 billion by 2050 for adaptation, UN estimates show. The money would cover a spectrum of solutions from the relatively straight-forward, such as wider deployment of air conditioning, to the more challenging, like the relocation of communities that live in areas that are becoming inhospitable to human life.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has announced plans to cut carbon emissions to zero by 2070, is seeking $1 trillion over the next decade from developed nations to help with the transition. The country scored a win last month when the European Investment Bank joined Australia, Japan, the UK, and the US to become a part of an India-led coalition of 30-plus nations that are pooling resources for creating climate-resilient infrastructure.
While technocrats in air-conditioned offices maneuver for more funds, afflicted communities have to cobble together their own strategies, often on shoestring budgets. In May and June, Bloomberg News dispatched reporters to three locations in India and one in Pakistan to learn how the people there were coping. We visited tribal villages in the jungles of central India where a centuries-old way of life is under threat from forest fires, dairy farms in the western part of the country where farmers are struggling to protect their herds from extreme heat, and a city nestled in the Himalayan foothills where demand for air conditioners is surging. In Pakistan, we headed to Jacobabad, where the combination of temperature and humidity has been known to surpass the level that is considered tolerable for humans, to learn how hospitals with limited resources are treating record numbers of heatstroke patients.
Prem Narayan crouches on the ground outside his hut and draws a circle in the dry mud. “It’s this big,” says the 60-year-old as he centers his right palm inside the larger circle to emphasize the size of the leopard’s paw.
Since March, the big cat has become a frequent nighttime visitor to a tiny pond behind Narayan’s home, which sits on the edge of a forest in Madhya Pradesh’s Sehore district in central India. That’s a concern because on uncomfortably hot nights—of which there have been more this summer—Narayan, his wife, and two children sleep outdoors.
The jungles of Madhya Pradesh are dense with teak, tendu, mahua, and Achar trees. Narayan’s family, like others in the area, harvests tendu leaves, used to wrap smoking tobacco into beedis, an Indian version of cigarettes. Achar seeds, natural gum, honey, and mahua flowers are used in food and medicines. Some tribes grow seasonal crops in forest clearings.
Rising temperatures threaten India’s forests, which support 275 million people and can sequester about 3 billion tons of CO₂ by 2030. About 65% of Indian states are under threat from forest fires, a study shows, up from 58% a decade earlier. Although villagers have been known to burn jungle undergrowth to make it easy to pick mahua flowers and tendu leaves or to clear land for subsistence farming, extreme heat and drought are largely to blame for the unprecedented destruction witnessed in recent years.
In Sehore, spiking summer temperatures have contributed to a more than doubling in the number of fires to eight a month. Jasbeer Singh Chouhan, Madhya Pradesh’s principal chief conservator of forests, says that to prepare for the 12- to 14-week period in summer before the arrival of the monsoons, when fire risk is greatest, his crews set to work digging solar-powered borewells and building earthen dams on rivers. They also started refilling waterholes by trucking in water in tankers. Shrinking waterholes in summers often lead to clashes between leopards and tigers and even animal-human conflicts over water.
Saya Ram, whose village of 800-odd people live almost entirely off the forest, stands in a clearing, surrounding by charred tree stumps. This particular fire, which burned all night a couple of days ago, has destroyed about 50 acres of cover, he estimates. He and his fellow villagers used big teak leaves to douse the burning undergrowth, but once the trees caught fire, there was no choice but to give up the fight, he says.
Many of the native species of trees—including one villagers call Mocham, whose bark helps cool the body in summers—haven’t grown back after previous fires. (Ecologists in North America have noted a correlation between climate changes and forests’ declining resilience after wildfires) So Ram has sent his child to the city to study in a residential school run by a charity in the hope that the next generation of his family won’t depend on the withering jungle.
“Adaptation will have to entail cutting pressure on forests,” says J.N. Kansotiya, the state’s senior-most bureaucrat responsible for horticulture and food processing. “We’ll have to ensure that those relying on forests have opportunities in production, that they are given skills training in the services sector and find jobs for them in industries so that the youth don’t go back to relying on the forests.”
Shehneela lay on a bed in the heatstroke unit of the Civil Hospital in Jacobabad, Pakistan, wearing a maroon salwar kameez with matching bangles and henna designs on her hands. Her husband, mother, and mother-in-law watched as a doctor administered an intravenous saline infusion to treat her dehydration.
“I suddenly started vomiting at a relative’s wedding last night. The loose motions came next,” says the 20-year-old patient, who like many Pakistani women uses only her first name. “They say the heatwave has hit me.”
Shehneela was among the scores of people crowding hospitals in this district of a million-plus residents—mostly small farmers, traders, and day laborers—in Pakistan’s southern Sindh province, where summer temperatures surpassed 51C (124F) in May.
Even though the district has long been known for its arid, dry weather, this year’s heat wave has been especially savage. In Jacobabad temperatures crossed 38C in March and mostly stayed there through June, at one point ascending above 49C.
Jacobabad is one of only a handful of places worldwide to have breached the wet bulb temperature threshold of 35C that is considered the theoretical survivability limit. Wet bulb temperatures, often called “real-feel” or “heat index” in the US, measure the combination of heat and humidity. A wet bulb reading of 35C translates roughly to a heat index of 160F.
That threshold wasn’t breached in Jacobabad this year. Nevertheless, Pakistan had logged at least 65 heat-related fatalities as of the time of writing.
The most serious heat-related illness is heatstroke, in which prolonged exposure to high temperatures—usually in combination with dehydration—leads to failure of the body’s temperature control system. As Dr. Sher Muhammad Brohi, who manages the outpatient department at Jacobabad Institute of Medical Sciences, describes it, patients experience a sudden fever spike and stop sweating. If left untreated, heatstroke can cause renal failure or brain hemorrhage. Dr. Brohi said that his four-bed unit had been admitting 10 to 12 patients a day from the last week of May through June.
Air conditioning is the best way to ward off heat-related illnesses, but residents and businesses in Jacobabad must put up with frequent power cuts, which also complicate emergency services’ response to distress calls.
At Dr. Brohi’s institute, however, power outages are rare, because the building is outfitted with solar panels. In fact, the doctor has become something of a solar evangelist. “We have strong sunshine for as many as 12 hours here,” he says. “We have this comparative advantage—highest heat that gives our solar system full voltage.”
However, barely 10% of Jacobabad’s wage workers would be able to afford to outfit their homes with solar panels. Lower cost alternatives for cooling homes include planting more trees to provide shade. Neem, a fast-growing variety that is part of the mahogany family, is especially heat tolerant and therefore a good candidate.
Although the area’s affluent residents often move out during the summer heat, for those like Shehneela, endurance is the only choice. “We have 11 people in our family. We can’t afford to buy more air conditioners,” she says. “My husband is a tailor.”
At any other time of the year, Gayatri Ritesh Kumar Patel’s Holstein-Friesian cows are the kind you want on a dairy farm. They tend to be more fertile. They live longer. They yield more milk than other breeds.
There’s just one thing about them that makes Patel’s life especially difficult in the summer: They can’t stand the heat. Every year, as temperatures rise, her 35 cows start drying up. Milk production on her and her husband’s farm in the western Indian state of Gujarat shrinks by about 25% to 30%.
The cows generate and absorb more heat than they can discharge through breathing and sweating. That diminishes their appetite, saps milk production, can increase the occurrence of disease and death, and decreases a cow’s fertility and ability to carry her calf to full-term. Those in the dairy business call this heat stress.
This isn’t just a problem for Patel. India is the largest milk producer globally, accounting for almost a quarter of all supplies. Most of the output is consumed at home. India exported 108,711 tons of dairy products worth about $391 million in the 2021-22 fiscal year.
Researchers warned in a study published this March in the that rising temperatures caused by climate change could bring about a 25% reduction in the milk supply in some areas by 2085. In May, Cambridge University Press published its own report estimating that India could face as much as $158 million in economic losses from heat-induced declines in milk production between 2010 and 2039.
Back at the farm, Patel, 43, is already bracing for increasingly worse summers. In 2018, she invested in high-pressure water misters, and this year she bought big basket fans that during the hottest months go on at noon every day and run for five hours with tiny breaks.
A government subsidy to help pay for solar panels would be nice, she says, “so that we can run the fans and fogger system for a longer period.” She also digs little ditches on her farm and wets the ground so the cows can lay down in the mud to stay cool. Some farmers feed their cows electrolytes to keep them hydrated.
In the longer term, she plans to increase the number of Gir cows she owns. They’re an Indian breed that handles high temperatures better and are more resistant to some diseases. They may not be as productive as Holstein-Friesian cows, she says, but their higher-quality milk will “fetch me a good price.”
Her farm produces 350 liters (92 gallons) of milk a day and sells it to Amul Dairy, which is affiliated with India’s biggest brand Amul. The company subsidizes mats, fans, and misters for farmers and sells cattle feed laced with vitamins and minerals. It also plans to help farmers put heat reflector coatings on the rooftops of their cow sheds at cheaper rates. “Climate change is one of the biggest challenges at this juncture,” says Amit Vyas, managing director of Amul Dairy.
The Perils of Overdevelopment
Baljinder Singh remembers a time when there were no ceiling fans in Dehradun. The 54-year-old says refrigerators were unplugged during winters “to rest the machines,” in this northern Indian city nestled in a Himalayan valley. Air conditioners were unheard of.
Now the 1,400-odd air conditioners he sells every summer bring in a fifth of the annual revenue at Singh’s appliance store, one of more than hundred such shops in Dehradun. “There’s been a dramatic shift,” says Singh about the change in weather in this city of about 750,000 residents. “ACs, in a town like Dehradun, have come up only in the last 15-20 years. Their market is growing.”
At an elevation of 670 meters or 2,200 feet—roughly the same as the German ski resort town of Winterberg—Dehradun was known for its mild summers, clean rivers, and thick tree covers until as recently as the 1990s, says Jaya Singh, who runs an organic farm in the area. It was also famous for its elite boarding schools, like the Doon School, which count former prime ministers as alumni. This year Dehradun recorded a maximum temperature of 40.2C on June 6, the highest in a decade.
“Things changed in 2000, just after Dehradun was made the capital of Uttarakhand,” says the 61-year-old, referring to India’s decision to join together 13 Himalayan districts into a 23rd state that shares borders with Tibet and Nepal. “That’s when the chopping of trees for new roads and the curse of development really started.”
The young state lost 50,000 hectares of tree cover over two decades, as forests were felled to make way for roads to bring in migrants and tourists and as mining and hydropower production expanded.
All of the new development has put pressure on a critically important ecosystem: Uttarakhand is home to 1,439 Himalayan glaciers, which form the Ganges river system, the main freshwater source for half the people in Bangladesh, India, and Nepal. In 2019, the district administration reported that 270 acres of area with rich water bodies including streams and canals had been built over. Of these, 100 acres were in Dehradun.
“We’ve paid a heavy price for growing into a larger city,” says Himanshu Arora, 43, who along with Singh is part of the Citizens for Green Doon collective that’s been running campaigns to save the city’s trees from “unsustainable development.” They’ve been part of efforts to stop the local government from cutting 10,000 trees in 87 hectares of the Shivalik Elephant reserve as part of a project to expand the local airport.
Mangesh Pal has experienced the rising temperatures with each summer in the decades he’s been working in orchards on Dehradun’s outskirts. The 60-year-old laborer now works two shifts to avoid being in the sun during the frequent heat waves. The river water no longer freezes in winters.
Dehradun reflects India’s lack of attention—and funding—for urban climate adaptation, even though half its people are expected to live in cities by 2050. Prime Minister Modi’s much-touted 2016 program to create 100 environmentally sustainable “smart cities” by 2023 has been plagued by delays that worsened during the pandemic, government data shows.
In his shop, Singh wonders how the future will play out. “Those who can afford to buy these ACs may do it, but what about the shoe polisher who’s sitting out in the sun? Also, how healthy is it to live inside air-conditioned environments?”