Scorching Indian Summer

Why India's summer is so hot, what measures Indians usually take to survive the summer, what other impacts the high temperature has on the nation, etc. To answer those questions, China-India Dialogue invited a meteorological expert to chat with us.
by Wang Shuya

With the coming of the annual monsoon, copious rain finally drives away the heat waves that grip India from the south to the north for over two months. Every summer, news of India’s high temperatures is quite common in Chinese newspapers. The heat claims a shocking number of lives. However, many Chinese readers still know little about why it’s so hot, what measures Indians usually take to survive the summer, what other impacts the high temperature has on the nation, etc. China-India Dialogue invited Ms. Zhang Bo, a senior engineer from the Meteorological Observation Center of China Meteorological Administration, to chat with us about India’s summer.

The hottest months: from April to June

Every year, the heat waves begin to strike India as scheduled in April, with scorching sunshine and high temperature lasting for weeks. The temperature peaks around May and won’t subside until the annual monsoon brings rain in late June.

According to India’s media reports, many places in India’s northern state of Rajasthan set new temperature records in May 2016. On May 19, Phalodi in Rajasthan recorded a maximum temperature of 51 degrees Celsius – surpassing the previous record of 50.6 degrees Celsius registered in 1956.

A motorcyclist and her pillion rider in Bhopal, central India, covered from head to toe to beat the heat.

Hindustan Times reported on May 18 that the blistering heat and drought claimed hundreds of lives this year and a quarter of the Indian population is still facing a shortage of food and drinking water.

A little monkey asks for water from tourists in Jaipur, India, for relief from the heat.

Zhang said that India has a tropical monsoon climate, generally witnessing four different seasons, including the winter (from December to March), summer (from April to June), monsoon (from July to September) and post-monsoon (from October to November).

From April to June, most places in India are affected by the Iran high-pressure belt, which makes the weather extremely hot and dry with little precipitation, thin clouds and strong, penetrating ultraviolet (UV) light. Especially in the plateau and desert regions, it is scorching under the sun, with the land temperature and apparent temperature higher than the actual air temperature, said Zhang. What’s worse, the towering Himalayas block the cold air from the north, so that the heat waves are stuck in the plateaus of South Asia, which makes India even hotter.

The tar of the road is melted by the heat in New Delhi, India.

Some experts hold that the unprecedented heat in India this year is mainly blamed on the impact of cyclical outbreak of El Nino and global warming.

Furthermore, many experts are pessimistic and predict that, in future, the heat waves of India would become more common, more intense, last longer and prove fatal.

Escaping the heat: the rich vs. the poor

High temperature, followed by the drought and water shortage, causes many deaths and injuries each year. According to Indian media, in 2015, over 2,400 people were killed by various diseases triggered by heat waves in India.

A devotee stands in the river Ganges, filtering water with his garment for drinking.

As India’s National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) pointed out,dehydration and heat stroke are the primary causes of death, with ordinary workers, women, children, the poor and the homeless being the main victims. Therefore, to protect children from the worst of the heat, some Indian schools are shut down in summertime.

A passenger showering himself with a water pipe on a train in Allahabad, northern India.

In the burning sun, most Indians like to put on churidars, a kind of traditional Indian pants. It’s loose above the knees and narrow below the calf, made of cotton and linen, with excess length falling into folds and resting on the ankles. Because of its light and breathable texture, it not only prevents the legs from direct exposure to the sun, but also releases the burning sensation of the skin. By creating a relatively cool environment around the legs, churidars keep the wearer’s body cooler than when bare-legged.

Churidars, traditional Indian pants for resisting the heat.

Of course, wearing churidars is far from enough for beating the heat. Every year, when the summer is approaching, many rich Indians head to holiday resorts abroad or cooler places near the foothills of the Himalayas in northern India, such as Uttaranchal, Himachal Pradesh and Kashmir.

In contrast, what the majority of the poor, especially the young, can do is jumping into any water they can find, such as rivers, lakes, fountains and ornamental ponds in the cities, for temporary respite from the heat.. Recently, an ornamental pond near the India Gate, a landmark of New Delhi, attracted many people to play with water. Similarly, loads of people filled the shallows of the Yamuna River in Delhi to escape the unrelenting heat wave, thereby creating a scene resembling “boiling dumplings”.

A water park is crowded with people who come to escape the heat in Hyderabad, India.

To tackle the extreme weather, the Indian government and related organizations have taken some measures. For example, the meteorological department issued high temperature alert early; and, people were advised preventive measures against the heat wave such as staying indoors in afternoon and drinking plenty of water, as well as urging local hospitals to treat heatstroke victims in time. In addition, some state governments also set up camps and provided drinking water for the needy.

Volunteers hand out soup for the needy in northwestern India reeling under heat wave.

In Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, the worst-hit areas, doctors were asked to suspend their vacations to ensure that all patients received prompt treatment. In Maharashtra, the local government dispatched thousands of water tankers for supplying water to over 4,000 disaster-affected villages.

Heat waves hurt India’s economy

The heat waves cause a lot of discomfort to common Indians and great loss to the economy.

Drivers take a nap in their rickshaws. After the death of two drivers because of the heat, rickshaws refused to ply between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.

The unrelenting heat and scorching sun pose severe challenges to agriculture. Rivers dry up, and the arid land is parched. Combined with poor irrigation infrastructure, these conditions are a real nightmare for the rain-dependent Indian farmers.

Power shortage is a chronic problem in India. But high temperature makes the power supply system even worse. Most of India’s power plants rely on thermal power or hydropower generation. However, on account of insufficient coal resources, India faces very severe power shortages. Blackouts happen so often during the peak time that many factories have to keep diesel generators on standby for power supply, which in turn increases the demand for fuel and worsens environmental pollution.

More importantly, blackouts affect foreign investors’ confidence in India’s economy. Some analysts believe that at present, India is at a crucial stage of attracting business investments. But, the serious challenges posed by high temperature to the infrastructure and energy-supply systems might negatively affect Narendra Modi’s ambitious plans for reviving the Indian economy.