The Observer, 13 May 2015

 Credit: Catherine de Lange

Credit: Catherine de Lange


Roads have twisted in the heat. Hospitals are overwhelmed by thousands of dehydrated people, the poor, the elderly and children among the worst hit. Urgent instructions to wear wide-brimmed hats and light-coloured cotton clothes, use umbrellas and drink lots of fluid have been issued by the government.

India is struggling to cope with one of the deadliest heatwaves to hit the subcontinent. And its attempt to do so is raising a question for the whole planet – how can humans cope with the kinds of temperatures that scientists fear may become ever more common?

In only 10 days, the death toll is reported to have reached around 1,800, a 20-year high. The brunt of the burden has fallen on the southern state of Andhra Pradesh, where 1,300 people have died, the highest loss of life due to heat the state has known, according to officials. By comparison, 447 people in the state died from the heat last year.

The blistering temperatures may, mercifully, be about to break, as there are signs that the longed-for monsoon may be arriving in the form of showers and thunderstorms in the south. But as temperatures neared 50C in recent weeks, leave for doctors has been cancelled and the government has issued warnings for people to stay indoors and stay hydrated. For many, though, that isn’t an option.

The greatest loss of life has been among the elderly and the poor, in particular day labourers who have little alternative but to risk their lives in the heat for fear of losing their livelihoods.

“People are dying and suffering, and I think it shows us the vulnerability that exists even in an area that is used to very hot weather,” said Peter Stott at the Met Office in Exeter. “It can still have a major impact.”