Dispatch

Is India’s Deadly Heat Wave Global Warming?

Is India’s Deadly Heat Wave Global Warming?

HYDERABAD, India — Laxmi Koddala, a 45-year-old construction worker at a housing development on this southern city’s outskirts, doesn’t blame climate change for India’s heat wave. “I tell you, the summers are getting hotter,” said Koddala, dressed in a cotton sari and a thin scarf, as temperatures edged past 110 degrees Fahrenheit. “It’s because of all these new buildings. There are no more trees, and no more water in the ground.”

Temperatures were so high in India in May that roads melted in the capital New Delhi, heatstroke patients overwhelmed hospitals, and at least 2,200 people died due to heat-related causes — making this one of the worst heat waves ever recorded. Nearly all of the deaths occurred in the southern states of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, which share Hyderabad as a capital, and where some places sizzled at over 117 degrees Fahrenheit. Though Y.K. Reddy, Hyderabad director of the India Meteorological Department, said that heat wave conditions (temperatures at least 9 degrees Fahrenheit above normal) have ended in most places, the mercury will still regularly rise past 107 degrees Fahrenheit in both states until the monsoon season arrives sometime in June.

Climate experts believe that this heat is part of a pattern of worsening summers around the globe. Dr. Hem Dholakia, a research associate with the Council on Energy, Environment and Water in Delhi, pointed to a series of unprecedented — and deadly — heat waves in recent years: Europe in 2003, Greece in 2007, Russia, and the Indian city of Ahmedabad in 2010, among others. “There is enough evidence to suggest that human-induced climate change is leading to heat waves around the globe,” he wrote in an email. “Therefore we can be reasonably confident that the current heat wave is a manifestation of a changing climate.”

But for residents of Hyderabad, a sprawling city of over 7 million that is home to the Indian headquarters of major tech companies like Google and Facebook, the blame — and the frustration — is directed not towards climate change, but to the city’s rapid growth. Hyderabad’s population has doubled since 2001, resulting in a dramatic expansion that has swallowed up farmland and polluted or shrunk dozens of lakes. And as afternoon temperatures consistently crossed into triple digits in May, causing traffic to thin and businesses to shut their doors, many residents complained that pollution, excessive construction, and depleted natural resources were making the city hotter.

“There aren’t any more trees anywhere in the city. It’s just buildings everywhere now,” said Nagaraj Chinnapalli, a 29-year-old professional driver who says he can’t work between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. anymore. “People have to realize that the destruction of trees is driving temperatures up. I put the air conditioning on full blast in the car, but it barely gets cooler.”

Koddala, a slender woman with reddish skin toughened by the sun, said she starts work at 8 a.m. and continues until 4 p.m., laboring through the hottest parts of the day. All around her, teams of workers toiled away on an endless landscape of new construction sites, pouring concrete and assembling brick walls. A few people napped in the shadows, covering their faces with wet towels and fanning themselves with newspapers. “We take a short nap after lunch to cool off,” she said, squatting in the doorway of an unfinished villa. “Today, I’m lucky because I’m working mostly in the shade. But usually we work in the direct sunlight. It can get unbearable, but what choice do I have?”

Whether daily-wage laborers or white-collar professionals, Hyderabadis seem to be in unanimous agreement that rapid urbanization was making it harder to stay cool. As he stopped at a roadside stall selling matkis, the pear-shaped earthen pots traditionally used in South Asia to keep water cool, Sudhir Purancha, an IT professional, argued that intense migration to the city was driving up the heat. “The summers were never this hot 10 years ago, but the population has just exploded in the city,” he said. “We’ve been trying to cut down on air-conditioning since it releases too many greenhouse gases. Instead we wear loose clothing, stay indoors, and drink a lot of water.”

There is evidence that backs up these assertions. One recent study by the India Meteorological Department, the country’s official weather service, found that the five biggest Indian cities, including Hyderabad, now annually experience more days above 98 degrees Fahrenheit than ever before. And research by the Indian nonprofit The Energy and Resources Institute has found evidence of an urban heat island effect in New Delhi and Bombay, in which concrete and asphalt surfaces trap heat during the day and release it at night, making cities feel hotter. Researchers told the Guardian that urban heat island effects were “directly related to and worsened by climate change,” as higher average temperatures increase the intensity of the effect.

Still, most of the heat wave deaths have been in rural parts of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana — whereas Hyderabad recorded just 10 deaths due to the heat, and the city has often faced similar temperatures in the past. Anant Maringanti, director of the think tank Hyderabad Urban Lab, said that while rapid urbanization may not have directly raised temperatures, it was likely making it harder for people to escape the weather: green spaces are harder to access, congested developments trap more heat, and drinking water is more difficult to come by. “So it’s not just the temperature,” he said. “It’s the impossibility of access to open areas, the stress of the traffic, the air pollution, all these irritations that add up and people associate with urbanization. And over the last 20 years, it’s has definitely become much more difficult for poor people to cope.”

In these extreme conditions, heat relief varies dramatically by what you spend. Upscale restaurants like the franchise Café Coffee Day advertise expensive “summer special” beverages, while roadside stalls have mushroomed all over the city that, for roughly 15 cents a glass, peddle cool lemonade of far more dubious quality. Many families seem to have finally splurged on their first air-conditioners, long considered a luxury in India. Sudhir Kumar Allam, the department manager of one Hyderabad outlet of Reliance Digital, an appliance store, said that he sold 675 new air-conditioner units this season — a record and triple the number sold in 2014.

Meanwhile, malls and multiplexes have become sanctuaries for those who can’t get air-conditioning at home. Ticket sales of the daily matinee show at the Sri Devi Cinema Hall, an air-conditioned movie theater in Hyderabad that plays regional Indian films, rose by 50 percent as college students and families sought refuge from the afternoon heat. “They’re coming here more for the air-conditioning than for the movie,” said C. Sudhakar, the theater’s assistant manager. “By the time the movie gets over it cools down outside, and they can go do their other errands.”

But for daily-wage laborers like construction worker Koddala, even staying indoors — much less accessing air-conditioning — is not an option. Authorities said most victims of the heat wave were working class, unable to afford missing a day of work and with far less access to water and cool spaces. “A lot of people faint on the job, and then they have to go to the hospital and get saline,” said Koddala, who earns just under $4 a day. “If the manager is good person, they’ll give us water and juice. If not, then we don’t get anything to drink.”

There was little water and electricity in the slum where she lives, Koddala added, and the nights got so hot that many people numbed themselves on cheap liquor in order to fall asleep. Roughly 33 percent of Hyderabad’s population lives in slums — which have grown rapidly in both number and population as the city expanded, resulting in greater congestion and acute water shortages, especially during heat waves. “Many slums used to have public water taps that provided clean, free water,” said Varghese Theckanath, director of the Montfort Social Institute in Hyderabad, a nonprofit that works with the city’s slums and homeless. “But now most slum households have to buy drinking water at steep prices. We’ve seen a steep increase in diarrhea this year, which means that many people are drinking water from contaminated sources to deal with the heat.”

The states of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana have yet to develop a comprehensive Heat Action Plan like the northern city of Ahmedabad, which provides “cooling spaces” and water stations for people to escape the heat. But, apparently sensing growing frustration with urbanization, the Telangana government is planning to plant 2.3 billion trees across the state.

Until then, one of the most reliable ways to stay cool is also the simplest. As the heat diminished slightly around 6 p.m., Laxman Rao Vallichetti, the beefy proprietor of a long-running coconut stand, couldn’t serve a growing line of customers fast enough.

“There’s no more water left in the ground, that’s why it’s been getting so hot,” he said, swiftly hacking at green coconuts with an old machete, for which he charged 44 cents. “But more people have been buying coconut water. It’s pure and made by god.”

Even if it gets hotter, he said, his business would do just fine.

NOAH SEELAM/AFP/Getty Images