A boy covers himself with a cloth while walking along a street in Chennai, India on June 19, 2023.
(Photo: R.Satish Babu/AFP via Getty Images)
“The consequences of climate injustice are starkly visible,” said Amnesty International India.
As parts of India endure a searing heatwave, hundreds of people have been hospitalized and more than 100 have died in two of the country’s most populous states over the past several days.
From last Thursday through Sunday, at least 68 people died in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh (UP), and more than 40 people died in the neighboring state of Bihar. During that period, maximum temperatures in the region soared to between 43°C and 45°C (109°F to 113°F), several degrees above average. The blistering heat has been exacerbated by high humidity.
Because all of the deaths in UP occurred in the Ballia district, questions have been raised about what caused so many people in the area to perish while those sweltering under similar conditions in surrounding jurisdictions escaped relatively unscathed.
“This has never happened in Ballia. I have never seen people dying because of the heat in such large numbers,” district resident R.S. Pathak, who lost his father on Saturday, toldThe Associated Press. “People fear venturing out. The roads and markets are largely deserted.”
According toThe New York Times, doctors in Ballia “are convinced there’s a link between the punishing temperatures and the deaths of their patients, but officials are investigating what role the dangerous combination of heat and humidity played in the rise in mortality.”
After Dr. Diwakar Singh, the former chief medical superintendent in Ballia, told reporters on Friday night that dozens of people had succumbed to heat stroke at the district’s main hospital, “he was reprimanded by the state government for prematurely drawing that conclusion and removed from his position,” the Times reported. “The government has since sent a scientific team from the state capital, Lucknow, to investigate the causes.”
“Dr. Singh’s replacement, Dr. S.K. Yadav, took a more cautious line on Sunday, saying, ‘Elderly patients with comorbidities like hypertension and diabetes are expiring because of heat,'” the Times noted. “‘Still,’ he added in a phone interview, ‘the death numbers are more than normal.’ He agreed with Dr. Kumar’s assessment that the excessive heat was to blame for the high death toll, whatever the exact link.”
At least 96 people have reportedly died during a scorching heatwave in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Half of these deaths were reported in a single district.
Ballia District Magistrate Ravindra Kumar has tried to deny the role played by extreme heat, tellingReuters: “A few of the deaths are related to old age, while some have different reasons. There is no concrete evidence of heatwave behind these deaths.”
Citing medical officials, AP reported that most of the hundreds of patients admitted to Ballia’s main hospital for “various ailments aggravated by heat” were over the age of 60 and “exhibiting symptoms of high fever, vomiting, diarrhea, breathing difficulties, and heart-related issues.”
Meanwhile, a member of the UP government’s team of experts said that “these do not appear to be heatwave-related deaths because nearby districts facing similar conditions are not throwing up similar death figures. The initial symptoms were of chest pain mostly, which is not the first symptom for someone affected by a heatwave.” According toThe Guardian, that official “said the deaths could have been caused by contaminated water.”
Still, the availability of clean water is inseparable from the issue of extreme heat, which is increasing in frequency, duration, and intensity due to the fossil fuel-driven climate emergency.
During heatwaves, India “usually suffers severe water shortages, with tens of millions of its 1.4 billion people lacking running water,” AP noted.
Opposition parties have criticized UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath of the ruling BJP party for not doing more in recent years to improve Ballia’s medical facilities or early warning systems.
“So many people across the state have lost lives because of the carelessness of the state government,” said Samajwadi party leader Akhilesh Yadav. “They should have warned the people about the heatwave. Not a single district hospital has been built in the last six years. Those who have lost their lives are poor farmers because they did not receive food, medicines, and treatment on time.”
On social media, Amnesty International India said: “Indian authorities must immediately, effectively, and impartially investigate these deaths. They should develop heat action plans consistent with human rights standards, to ensure that the rights of groups that are vulnerable to the health impacts of extreme heat are protected.”
“India is on the front lines of the climate crisis,” Amnesty continued. “The consequences of climate injustice are starkly visible, with marginalized people facing disproportionately severe consequences that are often life-threatening.”
“India should step up climate action,” the group added, “but wealthier countries must make no mistake about the important role they play.”
According to the Times:
The heat in this part of India has been hovering around the critical “wet-bulb temperature,” the threshold beyond which the human body cannot cool itself to a survivable point by perspiration, defined as 35°C (95°F), adjusted for 100% humidity. The wet-bulb reading in Ballia on Saturday reached 34.15°C (about 93°F).
It is expected that more older or infirm patients than usual will die in heatwaves like this one, which climate change has made more common across India’s historically scorching plains, as in most of the world, scientists say.
As the newspaper observed: “The question is whether these are ‘excess deaths,’ of the kind that can be measured only statistically, or whether India’s incrementally more unbearable weather is playing a more direct role in causing them, for instance by heat stroke. When more deaths are recorded than were expected, they count as excess. But that leaves open the question of what exactly caused them.”
“What is not in doubt,” the newspaper added, “is that weather of the kind that is becoming increasingly commonplace on every continent is making greater numbers of people die sooner than they would have in cooler times.”
This is not India’s first bout of oppressive heat this year. The record-breaking temperatures that pummeled large swaths of Asia in April killed more than a dozen people in India and forced school closures. According to a study by World Weather Attribution, global warming made the deadly heatwave at least 30 times more likely.
It occurred in the context of roughly 1.3°C of global temperature rise since the late 1800s. The United Nations has made clear that limiting planetary heating to 1.5°C above preindustrial levels—beyond which consequences will grow increasingly deadly, especially for people in low-income countries who bear the least responsibility for the crisis— depends on phasing out fossil fuels and achieving other systemic transformations.
Despite this, oil and gas corporations—bolstered by trillions of dollars in annual public subsidies—are still planning to expand fossil fuel production in the coming years, prioritizing short-term profits over the lives of those who will be harmed by the ensuing climate chaos.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s latest synthesis says that heatwaves and other extreme weather disasters will become more common and severe with each additional degree of warming.
If the world fails to mitigate the climate crisis, the U.N. warned last year, extreme heat is projected to kill as many people by the end of the century as all cancers and infectious diseases combined, with outsized impacts on people in impoverished nations. By mid-century, more than 2 billion children are projected to be at risk of suffering from frequent heatwaves.