Weather alert

A repeat of the 2015 Andhra-Telangana heat wave that killed 2,500 people is 10 times more likely now

A study has found that climate change has raised the probability of deadly heat waves.

The heat wave that killed around 2,500 people in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana in the last week of May 2015 is directly attributable to climate change. Global warming has increased the likelihood of such a heat wave in the region from being a once-in-100-years event to a once-in-10-years event, a 10-fold increase in probability. If the pollutants that blanket the sky above Hyderabad and much of the region were removed, such a heat wave may occur once every two years.

These are the three main conclusions of an analysis of the 2015 heat wave carried out by a group of researchers in India and abroad. Karsten Haustein of the University of Oxford, who is part of the group, said the researchers had found “very strong attribution, linking more extreme heat waves to human-induced climate change”. Their study has been submitted for publication in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society.

Haustein was speaking at a roundtable. Held in New Delhi on February 28, the roundtable was part of a project called Raising Risk Awareness, being carried out by seven think tanks in India and abroad.

The findings have clear implications for planners in South Asia. For one, they have to be far more ready for extreme heat waves than they are now. On top of that, they have to be aware that if and when pollution from industrial activities and transport is cleaned up, it will lead to stronger heat waves, as it has done in North America and Europe.

The blanket of pollution that envelopes South Asia much of the time does have the effect of preventing some of the sun’s heat from reaching the earth’s surface. This does not mean air pollution is good – it kills seven million people a year worldwide and may have an adverse impact on rainfall. What it does mean that is that planners have to be ready for even higher temperatures.

Attribution science

One cutting edge of climate science now is to study individual events such as heat waves, floods or droughts, and attribute it or not attribute it to climate change. This has implications for policymakers – if scientists tell them that a heat wave is due to climate change and that its frequency is likely to increase, they have to prepare accordingly. It has implications for the insurance industry for the same reason. It also has implications for international climate negotiations, in the arena of loss and damage. Once there is scientific evidence linking a particular storm or flood or heat wave to climate change, developing countries can demand compensation from the developed countries that have caused most of the climate change since the start of the Industrial Age.

In this project, the scientists had studied two events in India – the very heavy rainfall in Chennai on December 1, 2015, and the Andhra-Telangana heat wave. Krishna Achuta Rao of the Indian Institute of Technology-Delhi, co-researcher in the Chennai study, said that his team could not find any reason to attribute the rainfall to climate change.

The heat wave, however, was clearly due to climate change, the scientists said after studying masses of weather data and running iterations of climate models.

Policy implications

Will these findings change anything on the ground? Not unless the scientists can get even more specific, and forecast the month when the heat wave will take place or the number of days it will go on, said Nagendra K Biyani of the disaster management department in the Andhra Pradesh government. “We plan for heat waves anyway,” he told the roundtable. “A generic mention of the role of climate change in a heat wave does not help in that planning. We need something specific.”

Heat waves in summer inevitably lead to water shortages in many places. Image credit: Rajesh Pamnani
Heat waves in summer inevitably lead to water shortages in many places. Image credit: Rajesh Pamnani

Ahmedabad Heat Action Plan reduced the number of deaths during a 47-degree Celsius heat wave from 700 in 2010 to 20 in 2015. Biyani said a similar plan has been developed for Vijayawada, but the problem is that decision-making remains fragmented between various ministries and branches of the municipal corporation.

Akhilesh Gupta, climate change head in the Department of Science and Technology, pointed to the same problem. He said Indian scientists could now provide crucial information on storms, heat waves, floods or droughts, but that was neither being communicated effectively to other ministries, nor to the people. “We can’t work in isolation between DST [Department of Science and Technology], MOES [Ministry of Earth Sciences, which is the parent organisation of the India Meteorological Department, IMD], MOEFCC [Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change]. The IMD state centres and the DST state climate change cells must work together.”

Heat index

While acknowledging that communication and coordination are crucial, scientists are going ahead with their work. Another study by Achuta Rao, with Michael Wehner, Dáithí Stone and Hari Krishnan in Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and Federico Castillo in University of California at Berkeley, pointed out that high humidity often worsens the effect of a heat wave.

The May 2015 heat wave in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana was followed by a heat wave in Karachi that killed at least 700 people, though the temperatures in Pakistan’s largest city were at least five to six degrees lower than in South-Central India. The key reason was a relative humidity of 35%-70% in Karachi, far higher than the 20% recorded at most weather stations in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana.

This is known, and weather experts in North America and Europe have developed what is called a heat index, a combination of temperature, relative humidity and other factors. However, it is not applicable in South Asia. Scientists are now working on developing a heat index that will be useful to policymakers.

Attribution science is in its infancy, but its utility to policymakers is already apparent, as long as the scientists come up with their results quickly after a heat wave or a storm or a similar event, and as long as these results are communicated without any delay to policymakers and people.

This article first appeared from The Third Pole.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content  BY 

As India turns 70, London School of Economics asks some provocative questions

Is India ready to become a global superpower?

Meaningful changes have always been driven by the right, but inconvenient questions. As India completes 70 years of its sovereign journey, we could do two things – celebrate, pay our token tributes and move on, or take the time to reflect and assess if our course needs correction. The ‘India @ 70: LSE India Summit’, the annual flagship summit of the LSE (London School of Economics) South Asia Centre, is posing some fundamental but complex questions that define our future direction as a nation. Through an honest debate – built on new research, applied knowledge and ground realities – with an eclectic mix of thought leaders and industry stalwarts, this summit hopes to create a thought-provoking discourse.

From how relevant (or irrelevant) is our constitutional framework, to how we can beat the global one-upmanship games, from how sincere are business houses in their social responsibility endeavours to why water is so crucial to our very existence as a strong nation, these are some crucial questions that the event will throw up and face head-on, even as it commemorates the 70th anniversary of India’s independence.

Is it time to re-look at constitution and citizenship in India?

The Constitution of India is fundamental to the country’s identity as a democratic power. But notwithstanding its historical authority, is it perhaps time to examine its relevance? The Constitution was drafted at a time when independent India was still a young entity. So granting overwhelming powers to the government may have helped during the early years. But in the current times, they may prove to be more discriminatory than egalitarian. Our constitution borrowed laws from other countries and continues to retain them, while the origin countries have updated them since then. So, do we need a complete overhaul of the constitution? An expert panel led by Dr Mukulika Banerjee of LSE, including political and economic commentator S Gurumurthy, Madhav Khosla of Columbia University, Niraja Gopal Jayal of JNU, Chintan Chandrachud the author of the book Balanced Constitutionalism and sociologist, legal researcher and Director of Council for Social Development Kalpana Kannabiran will seek answers to this.

Is CSR simply forced philanthropy?

While India pioneered the mandatory minimum CSR spend, has it succeeded in driving impact? Corporate social responsibility has many dynamics at play. Are CSR initiatives mere tokenism for compliance? Despite government guidelines and directives, are CSR activities well-thought out initiatives, which are monitored and measured for impact? The CSR stipulations have also spawned the proliferation of ambiguous NGOs. The session, ‘Does forced philanthropy work – CSR in India?” will raise these questions of intent, ethics and integrity. It will be moderated by Professor Harry Barkema and have industry veterans such as Mukund Rajan (Chairman, Tata Council for Community Initiatives), Onkar S Kanwar (Chairman and CEO, Apollo Tyres), Anu Aga (former Chairman, Thermax) and Rahul Bajaj (Chairman, Bajaj Group) on the panel.

Can India punch above its weight to be considered on par with other super-powers?

At 70, can India mobilize its strengths and galvanize into the role of a serious power player on the global stage? The question is related to the whole new perception of India as a dominant power in South Asia rather than as a Third World country, enabled by our foreign policies, defense strategies and a buoyant economy. The country’s status abroad is key in its emergence as a heavyweight but the foreign service officers’ cadre no longer draws top talent. Is India equipped right for its aspirations? The ‘India Abroad: From Third World to Regional Power’ panel will explore India’s foreign policy with Ashley Tellis, Meera Shankar (Former Foreign Secretary), Kanwal Sibal (Former Foreign Secretary), Jayant Prasad and Rakesh Sood.

Are we under-estimating how critical water is in India’s race ahead?

At no other time has water as a natural resource assumed such a big significance. Studies estimate that by 2025 the country will become ‘water–stressed’. While water has been the bone of contention between states and controlling access to water, a source for political power, has water security received the due attention in economic policies and development plans? Relevant to the central issue of water security is also the issue of ‘virtual water’. Virtual water corresponds to the water content (used) in goods and services, bulk of which is in food grains. Through food grain exports, India is a large virtual net exporter of water. In 2014-15, just through export of rice, India exported 10 trillion litres of virtual water. With India’s water security looking grim, are we making the right economic choices? Acclaimed author and academic from the Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi, Amita Bavisar will moderate the session ‘Does India need virtual water?’

Delve into this rich confluence of ideas and more at the ‘India @ 70: LSE India Summit’, presented by Apollo Tyres in association with the British Council and organized by Teamworks Arts during March 29-31, 2017 at the India Habitat Centre, New Delhi. To catch ‘India @ 70’ live online, register here.

At the venue, you could also visit the Partition Museum. Dedicated to the memory of one of the most conflict-ridden chapters in our country’s history, the museum will exhibit a unique archive of rare photographs, letters, press reports and audio recordings from The Partition Museum, Amritsar.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Teamwork Arts and not by the Scroll editorial team.