Silent scorchers: Karnataka’s rising heat

Even cities like Mysuru and Bengaluru, once known for their ideal weather conditions, are bearing the brunt of urban heat island effect
Last Updated : 30 April 2023, 08:41 IST
Last Updated : 30 April 2023, 08:41 IST
Last Updated : 30 April 2023, 08:41 IST
Last Updated : 30 April 2023, 08:41 IST

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Many in Sanapura village, Koppal district have given up MGNREGA work although it is their sole source of income in the summer. “Either we have to go hungry or dare to face the sun. Both can be fatal,” says Kuru Murthy, who leads a team of MGNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act 2005) workers in the village.

He has witnessed the lethal nature of heat and can recall nearly a dozen fatalities of daily-wage workers in the region that he links to sunstroke in the last two years.

Those who go to work complain of dizziness, headaches, anxiety, fatigue and breathlessness. Even residents of North Karnataka, who are used to scorching temperatures, are struggling to understand why the sun has become so harsh.

The effects of increasing temperatures are evident in the coffee fields of Kodagu, Chikkamagaluru and Hassan, where withered robusta coffee plants, wilted flowers and drooping green cherries tell the unprecedented tale of a thermal shock.

Even cities like Mysuru and Bengaluru, once known for their ideal weather conditions, are bearing the brunt of urban heat island effect, with residents suffering from heat exhaustion and dehydration. A heat island is formed when a dense concentration of concrete structures absorb and retain heat.

“After spending a day outdoors last week, it took three days for me to recover from sunstroke,” says 43-year-old Mallik Annasagaram. In the 15 years he has been in the city, this is the first incident of heatstroke he has experienced.

Repeated occurrences of heat-related exhaustion have made heat strokes or sunstrokes a part of people’s daily vocabulary. In fact, according to a 2023 research paper by the University of Cambridge, more than 90 per cent of India is in the ‘extremely cautious’ or ‘danger’ range, contradicting the common perception that heatwaves are limited to dry states. Globally, March 2023 was the second-warmest in the last 174 years, according to the latest Global Climate Report.

The increase in temperature in recent years is apparent. While stray incidents of heatstroke deaths have been recognised since 2015, this year, people across the state are complaining of intolerable heat.

A Prasad, a scientist at India Meteorological Department (IMD) Bengaluru attributes it to longer periods of higher temperatures. “For instance, in Bengaluru, last year we saw a maximum of two days of high temperature at a stretch. This year, temperatures are above normal for four to five days continuously,” he says.

The temperature is also two-three degrees above normal on an average, though a heatwave condition has not been breached technically. “This year, heatwaves were observed in coastal Karnataka for a brief period as early as March,” he adds. As a result, the IMD has issued guidelines to manage harsh summers.

Across the country, the department has sounded an alarm, warning the arrival of warmer nights and frequent heatwaves this summer.

Effects of heatwaves

While there is general evidence that ecosystems, crop productivity and high temperatures are linked, there is a lack of understanding at the local level on how these processes are connected.

A recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report says that heatwaves can affect food and nutrition security. Among other effects, drastic reductions in yield due to disruption in plant flowering patterns are also predicted.

A 2022 international study, in which IMD participated, found that the heat reduced India’s wheat crop yields.

Similarly, heatwaves can put a strain on our natural resources like groundwater. This can have a cyclical effect, as strained resources can make it more difficult for people to cope with high temperatures.

Residents of tens of villages sitting in protest in Raichur demanding drinking water supply as well as rivers drying up in coastal Karnataka and Malnad regions point to this fact.

“Forest fires and landslides have all contributed to our current situation. Despite good rainfall last year, rivers are drying up because water is not percolating. Projects like Yettinahole have only compounded the problem,” says environmental activist Dinesh Holla.

Farmer and researcher Balachandra Hegde Saimane, who has set up a private weather station at his home in the Western Ghats region, has recorded an increase of 1.2 degree Celsius compared to average temperature of the region obtained from global dataset, over the last 15 years. This year, the temperature touched 40 degrees Celsius seven times, something that hadn’t happened before. “This situation was expected but since we didn’t act quickly, we are finding it difficult to cope,” he says. In a normal year, his farm in Siddapura taluk of Uttara Kannada gets 100-120 mm pre-monsoon showers. “This year, we have only one rain (9mm),” he says.

The lack of integration of green and blue infrastructure planning and land use strategy, specifically in urban construction projects is exacerbating heat, says Dr Neethi Rao, an adjunct faculty at Institute of Public Health. “Groundwater, tree canopy, drainage are all interconnected and crucial to make a city liveable. There is a lack of coordination between departments and the rising heat is not part of the discussion because it is still not considered enough of a problem,” she says.

Poor and marginalised communities are disproportionately affected during heatwaves. Living under tin roofs, for example, can compound temperatures even indoors.

Today, rising temperatures have impacted people on the higher socio-economic spectrum too. “In recent years, there has been only a slight increase in vulnerability as people with slightly better incomes can afford mitigative infrastructure even though the risk of heatwaves has increased,” says Subimal Ghosh, convenor, Interdisciplinary Program in Climate Studies at Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay.

“We need to have city or district-level mitigation strategies — both preventive and protective — and ecosystem protection. Adaptive governance which is based on science and flexibility is key in managing heatwaves,” says Bengaluru-based environmental researcher Kshitij Urs.

A Lancet study explains how structural development interventions that are not often related to climate might impact coping capacity thresholds for communities. For instance, affordable housing can act as a coping mechanism to heat stress if it is designed to allow better ventilation for heat removal or provides open spaces that encourage community networking.

The study also finds that state-level sustainable development goals in India lack a consideration of the effects of heat.

Disaster management

“Heatwaves do not yet bring the urgency that other climate change-induced disasters such as cyclones and extreme rainfalls evoke. This is mainly because of the lack of awareness among people and even the administration,” says Ghosh.

Even though heatwaves are classified as natural disasters and early warning systems have improved, there is no considerable reduction in the impact of temperature hazard and exposure, he adds.

Economist Sangeetha Kattimani, based out of Kalaburagi, questions the rationale behind not declaring heatwave in Kalaburagi when temperatures soared past 40 degrees Celsius, particularly between April 19 and April 21 this year.

“Until and unless heatwaves are declared, necessary action will not be taken,” she says. Kattimani explains that failure to declare heatwaves also means that people who encounter crop loss or families that experience fatalities will not get compensation.

“Reporting is poor, no one comes to know even when we reach 44 to 45 degrees Celsius. We are losing working hours because of the high temperature. This is affecting labour productivity, particularly of those working outdoors. The region also loses out on revenue from tourism and agriculture during the summer,” she says.

In fact, “40 degrees Celsius has become a normal temperature in Kalaburagi these days. Though 40 degrees Celsius is the cut-off temperature in the plains and grasslands to issue heatwave warning, it should also meet the criteria that the departure should be four to five degrees Celsius from normal,” Prasad says.

Mitigation measures

Improved adaptation, with better early warning systems, decision-making and mitigation strategies, is key to managing heatwaves. The ‘Ahmedabad Heat Action Plan’, the first such programme formulated in South Asia, has emphasised putting in place these systems along with instituting a heat emergency response team.

The plan, first drafted in 2013, also includes short-term measures such as creating a water distribution system and long-term measures like improving forest coverage and implementing cool roof programmes. Following Ahmedabad’s lead, gradually a few more cities have come up with such policies. Karnataka came up with its first heatwave action plan in 2021.

Some schools in Kolkata, for instance, were shut in light of soaring temperatures and some schools opted for online classes for a week in April as per a government directive when the city touched 40 degrees Celsius. “Online mode for educational institutes and change in office hours is one of the best and most viable heatwave responses,” says Ghosh.

However, there is a lack of uniform policy in this regard. In Kalyana Karnataka, for instance, the administration revoked early school, college and office timings that were in place for the summer even though the heat crossed 40 degrees Celsius last year. Residents of the region have received no respite this year as well.

Kalaburagi Government Employees’ Association President Raju Lengti says that they are planning to submit a memorandum to the administration to revert to the old timings as it is becoming difficult for them to work as mercury soars beyond 40 degrees C.

Last year, the state government proposed the construction of a ‘Great Green Wall’ — a multi-layered afforestation project — from Bidar to Ballari. The project aimed to use more than one lakh hectares of uncultivable land to improve the microclimate of the region. Unfortunately, there has been no progress thereafter.

An intersection of heatwave and health policies is the need of the hour, says Dr Asha Benakappa who has seen an exponential rise in the number of people with heatwave symptoms coming for treatment in and around Bengaluru. “While dehydration, fatigue, hypertension are short-term symptoms, it could cause damage to the kidney and other organs as well. A comprehensive advisory is essential to tackle the situation,” she says.

Officials refute the alleged fatalities due to heatwaves. “There is no death recorded due to heatwaves in Karnataka. As per the statistics, this year Karnataka is one or two degrees Celsius below normal,” says Manoj Rajan, commissioner, Karnataka Disaster Management Authority.

“We work along with various departments to ensure that increased heat conditions do not affect health or productivity. Based on historical data, we have identified the most vulnerable gram panchayats and given them advisories,” he adds.

Experts say that despite an action plan, there is no proper response mechanism put in place in the state. Despite the projected risk, there is no system in place to identify the vulnerable people and come up with adequate measures to address the challenges they face. As a result, a clear picture on the urgency of heat-resilient systems and infrastructure is lacking.

Even when heatwave alerts are issued, a lack of awareness on the interaction of different components that contribute to a microclimate can impede the state from forming effective action plans. “People can connect with the heatwaves alerts only if they understand the language. For instance, 35 degrees Celsius wet bulb temperature can be more severe than 40 degree Celsius temperature with low humidity. Wet bulb temperature combines humidity and temperature, and high values of both are bad for health. So, alerts should include both temperature and relative humidity,” says Ghosh.

Ultimately, as heatwaves continue to impact most sections of society across geographical locations, recognising past and impending calamities is the first step forward. Effective early warning systems, increased awareness, decision-making and mitigation methods will be vital as the incidence of heatwaves is predicted to increase.

Published 29 April 2023, 17:52 IST

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