India Grapples with Intense Heatwave, Life-Threatening Heat Strokes Loom

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Parched beneath a seemingly relentless sun, the northern expanses of India are being tested by an intensified, weeks-long heatwave. The oppressive heat has compelled numerous schools to shutter their doors, whilst outdoor laborers grapple with an escalated risk of succumbing to life-threatening heatstrokes.

The unforgiving heat is predicted to continue its stranglehold across the region for several more days, according to India’s weather bureau, prompting heightened state of alert, especially in the most vulnerable areas.

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Tuesday provided no respite, as mercury levels in parts of India’s sweltering capital scaled to a blistering 49.9 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit) — a staggering 9 degrees beyond meteorologic expectations. The adjacent states of Punjab and Haryana were also held in the furnace-like grip of the heat, with Rajasthan witnessing temperatures eclipse the 50-degree Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit) threshold.

India categorically designates a weather phenomenon as a heatwave when temperatures exceed 45 degrees Celsius (113 degrees Fahrenheit).

On these broiling summer days in Bikaner, Rajasthan, the searing temperature has incited a weary Chinkara gazelle fawn to seek refuge and rest in the shade of a peacock’s plumage at a local animal rescue center. Elsewhere in the city, a man was seen brandishing an umbrella hat in a bid to stave off the punishing heat.

A potent image of the heatwave’s impact was embodied by a man, heaving a water cooler towards his home through the blazing streets of New Delhi. It was a race against evaporation, reflecting the urgency to secure cooling relief as the heat continues to mount in this struggling city.

The stifling heat has converged alarmingly with a general election, extending for an intense six-week run. The soaring temperatures have raised significant health concerns as expectant voters bear the sweltering weather in prolonged queues awaiting their turn to cast their ballots.

The temperature extremes are also wreaking havoc on the local fauna, exposing them to the risks of dehydration and deadly heatstrokes. Sitaram, an animal conservationist based in Bikaner, Rajasthan, who is widely recognized by his solitary name, expressed concern about the water scarcity impacting the endangered Chinkaras, or Indian gazelle. Amid these testing conditions, his rescue center remains dedicated to sheltering and hydrating these beleaguered creatures.

Although the months of April, May and June typically usher in scorching heat across numerous parts of India, swiftly followed by the respite of monsoon rains and a resultant drop in temperature, the conversation is shifting. This increasing trend of extreme heat events is rapidly evolving into a public health crisis in India. The past decade has witnessed warmer weather growing more vehement, often hand in hand with crippling water shortages.

The grave reality is that many of India’s vast population of 1.4 billion people grapple with the lack of running water. Citizens across the country, like a man in Lucknow cooling off by splashing water from a roadside tap on his face, are baked under the unyielding sun, scrambling for ways to resist the heat.

The searing weather affords no allowances for humanity’s quotidian duties. A woman purchased a fan from a market in Guwahati and later carried it home; elsewhere a man slept under a truck to evade the harsh sun; gas cylinder delivery personnel wiped his brow of sweat and took a respite in a tree’s shade, and children dove into lakes in search of sweet, albeit temporary, relief.

This story ends much like it begins, under the blistering sun in Bikaner, where doctors at an animal rescue center nurse a dehydrated Chinkara gazelle back to health. Yet, one can’t help but wonder just how long this intense wave of heat will continue to ravage this part of the world and what its impacts will be on the lived realities of its residents, both human and animal alike.