Heatwave in India and Pakistan is affecting marginalised most severely

Published on 16 May 2022

A devastating heatwave affecting South Asia over the past two months has persisted into this week, with temperatures in parts of Delhi hitting a record 49.2 degrees Celsius over the weekend. From as early as March this year daytime temperatures have frequently passed the 40 degrees Celsius mark –  between 5°C and 7°C higher than average, with fears of worse yet to come in the weeks ahead.

Professor Lyla Mehta, Research Fellow at the Institute of Development Studies said:

“The highest cost of this heatwave is falling to those already marginalised and unable to cope. Vulnerable communities in India and Pakistan have unequal access to basic water, health, and sanitation services. They lack fans, air conditioning units, and cannot afford not to work, meaning they spend hours in dangerously hot conditions. Prolonged high temperatures dry out key water sources such as ponds and wells. As the burden of water collection in rural communities often falls on women and girls, this will add to existing pressure as they walk further to collect water in dangerously hot conditions.

“Extreme weather can create myriad “knock-on problems”, such as inadequate clean water supplies, causing disease outbreaks. Scarcity means that vital water resources for sanitation, such as water to clean toilets and public facilities will be lacking. 70 per cent of rural household in India rely on agricultural labour to survive. Crop failures are common under such intense heat and will be devastating for small farmers.

“The interests of these most affected communities need to be up front. In the TAPESTRY project we are working with urban fishers in Mumbai, communities living in the Sundarbans delta, and the Kutch dryland in Gujarat – regions already bearing extreme effects of climate change. The heatwave is having profound impacts on all three regions – on their crops, fish supply, the livelihoods of pastoralists and their water availability. There is a tendency to impose ‘top-down’ recovery measures that may benefit ‘corporate elites and industrialists’ but not local people. Solutions and emergency support must support local livelihoods and put their interests first.”

Professor Nausheen Anwar, Research Fellow at the Institute of Development Studies said:

“Across South Asian cities, the effects of heatwaves disproportionately impact their vulnerable and poorest residents. High levels of heat exposure compound existing vulnerabilities and impact populations in a multitude of social, economic, and physiological ways.

“Vulnerability often intersects with limited or poor access to infrastructures such as housing with adequate ventilation, clean water and uninterrupted electricity that are critical for cooling. For vulnerable populations, living with heat means living with the risk of death.

“Even though heatwaves have become a recurrent phenomenon in South Asia, we need to think beyond each individual heatwave to understand this as slow onset disaster particularly in terms of effects of chronic heat exposure on daily life, health, and wellbeing, amongst other indicators. Action on heat exposure and adaptation must be context-based and attentive to how people live with heat and the practices through which they manage. A grounded, locally led view is critical for informing urban planning and climate change policy.”

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