India’s poor can’t afford to beat the heat

It’s hard to beat the ruthless heat in the desert town of Sri Ganganagar in India, a reality facing millions of people across the vast country as the climate changes over the coming decades.

While people in wealthy countries can find respite in a warming planet with air conditioners and other modern luxuries, many here – and elsewhere in India – don’t even have running water.

Sri Ganganagar, in the desert state of Rajasthan near the Pakistani border, is regularly the hottest place in India and temperatures of 50 degrees Celsius are no exception.

Thus, the two million inhabitants of the district, or the equivalent of the population of Slovenia, get up early during the long summer months.

By late morning the sun is already fierce and the temperature brutal 42 degrees, and everyone will soon be retiring to their homes until early evening.

“At noon, only those who cannot avoid it are outside. We sit right below,” said fruit seller Dinesh Kumar Shah, pointing to his large black umbrella.

Only a lucky few have air conditioning, with most people using cheaper fans and air coolers – between power cuts – and thick green curtains called tarps to block out the sun.

“We the poor are the hardest hit,” said Kuldeep Kaur, a local resident. “The ceiling fans in our homes just circulate warm air.”

“It’s especially difficult for young children at home in the summer. But I guess there isn’t much that ordinary citizens can do about it. We just have to put up with it.”

A girl bathes her cattle in Sri Ganganagar on July 4. | AFP-JIJI

Along the city’s irrigation canals, the boys and men, young and old, but not the women of socially conservative Rajasthan, cool off in the muddy water.

The inhabitants know the water release times. It helps them irrigate their crops and tells them where to bathe.

“It’s better than any fan or air cooler,” said Arjun Sarsar, 16, who had already spent four hours relaxing, literally, with his friends.

Get hotter

India’s average temperature rose by about 0.7 degrees between the turn of the 20th century and 2018. It is expected to rise another 4.4 degrees by 2100, according to a recent government report.

The study also predicts that the frequency of heat waves will then be three to four times higher than in 1976-2005, and that they will last twice as long.

According to a draft report by the UN Climate Science Advisory Group consulted by AFP last month, hundreds of millions of people are likely to be affected by at least 30 days of deadly heat each year by 2080, even if the world meets the Paris climate accord’s target of capping warming well below 2 degrees.

Sustained heat waves can be life threatening, especially when combined with high humidity levels.

A child drinks sugar cane juice sold by a roadside vendor on a hot summer afternoon in Sri Ganganagar on July 4.  |  AFP-JIJI
A child drinks sugar cane juice sold by a roadside vendor on a hot summer afternoon in Sri Ganganagar on July 4. | AFP-JIJI

Together, high humidity and heat can create so-called humid temperatures so violent that sweating no longer cools people down, potentially killing a healthy adult within hours.

“Temperatures and humidity are rising in India and around the world,” said Roxy Mathew Koll, climatologist at the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology.

“It’s not just the heat waves, but also the increase in humidity that comes with them, making the temperature seem much higher (than it is).” , Koll added.

Painting the roofs

Indian cities are implementing “heat action plans”, planting trees in urban areas and painting roofs with reflective paint, but these are not a substitute for global action to reduce emissions.

Back in Sri Ganganagar, locals keep cool plastic cups of cane juice with mint and lemon leaves, sold by Mathura Choudhary for 10 rupees ($ 0.13 each).

“This is the time when we are doing our best,” Choudhary said at his roadside stall. “Who wouldn’t love a drink or two of this in the summer? It’s cold, sweet and chilly.”

Filling plastic water cans that his company distributes to homes without running water, Sitaram Sevta said townspeople were used to the summer heat.

“People live their lives around it,” he said.

“It’s not too hot. It’s not a summer in Sri Ganganagar yet… (The temperature) is only 41 or 42.”

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