South Asia’s Record-Breaking Heat Wave Isn’t Over Yet
The extreme weather in India and Pakistan is a sign of what’s to come for climate-vulnerable countries.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s South Asia Brief.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s South Asia Brief.
The highlights this week: India and Pakistan grapple with a scorching heat wave, Afghanistan is rocked by terrorist attacks, and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi pays a visit to Indian-administered Kashmir.
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Regional Heat Wave Underscores Climate Risks
Parts of India and Pakistan have now experienced scorching temperatures for weeks. Those who work outside are struggling after the early morning hours, some schools have closed, and governments have warned of impending electricity blackouts. Scientists attribute the extreme weather to low rainfall and high pressure, but it is exacerbated by climate change. The heat wave offers a frightening preview of what could be in store for the region in the years ahead—and it’s about to get worse.
Last month, temperatures in India reached their highest level in nearly 125 years, according to official data. The highs this weekend are expected to reach 120 degrees Fahrenheit in some areas. Millions of Indians work outside, and most indoor facilities lack air conditioning; more than 1 billion people could face heat-related health impacts, according to scientists. Food security is also at stake: The heat has hit breadbasket states in the north particularly hard.
Pakistan is suffering similar conditions. Last year the country saw its highest temperatures since 1961, and officials warn that highs this week could reach a whopping 46 degrees Fahrenheit higher than usual. Pakistani authorities have urged the public to avoid “unnecessary exposure” to sunlight and called on medical personnel to prepare for surges in heatstroke.
India is the world’s third-biggest carbon emitter, but, given its climate vulnerability, it appears keen to change course. At last year’s United Nations climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, Prime Minister Narendra Modi pledged that by 2030, New Delhi would reduce its projected carbon emissions by 1 billion tons and meet half its energy requirements with renewable fuels. He also pledged to reach net-zero emissions by 2070. (Modi did not sign on to new deforestation or methane emissions reduction plans at the summit.)
Modi’s pledges were ambitious given India’s current standing: Dirty fuels dominate its energy mix, with coal making up about 70 percent. Some optimists point to 2020, when modest decreases in the share of fossil fuel consumption in India’s energy mix produced a 7 percent reduction in emissions. But that was likely a COVID-19 pandemic anomaly, with lockdowns reducing transportation activity. In 2021, oil consumption rose to nearly 5 million barrels per day, compared to 4.65 million in 2020.
The International Energy Agency (IEA) predicts that India’s combined import bill for fossil fuels will triple in the next two decades. And according to my Wilson Center colleague Hari Seshasayee, even if India achieves its clean energy targets, it will still need to import 7.2 million barrels per day of oil to meet its overall energy demands. Future population growth and urbanization will require intense infrastructure development that will be difficult to decarbonize.
India is clearly committed to scaling up renewables. It already boasts the world’s largest solar farm and the world’s first airport fueled entirely by solar power. The IEA notes that the share of non-fossil fuels in electricity generation capacity could reach almost 60 percent in the coming years. (Scholars also predict that Pakistan could achieve a similar boost in the coming decades.)
But the road to scaled-up renewable consumption in India is paved with obstacles. Last week, I visited Kerala, one of the country’s most climate-vulnerable states thanks to severe flood risks and limited government protection for its coastal ecosystems. Local climate experts identified multiple challenges to climate mitigation: inefficient power distribution, the high cost of solar and wind farms, and diluted biodiversity laws.
These constraints underscore the scale of India’s climate challenge, but they also highlight the potential for increasing U.S.-India cooperation on mitigation, which already includes $300 million in U.S. assistance for solar power plants and could further benefit from U.S. technology that strengthens India’s capacity to store solar energy. More cooperation is likely on the way: A joint statement issued earlier this month after discussions in Washington reaffirmed a commitment to continuing clean energy dialogues.
Meanwhile, more heat waves are likely on the way. The number of excessively hot days in India increased from 413 between 1981 and 1990 to 600 between 2011 and 2020. Last year, India’s Ministry of Earth Sciences projected that its average temperatures will rise by nearly 4 percent by the end of the century. Unfortunately, a baking subcontinent likely represents a harbinger for climate-vulnerable countries around the world without meaningful emissions reductions.
What We’re Following
Terrorism surges in Afghanistan. After a period of relative calm, Afghanistan has been rocked by a series of terrorist attacks in recent days. The Islamic State-Khorasan group claimed responsibility for the bombing of a Shiite mosque last Thursday in Mazar-e-Sharif. That attack followed the bombing of a school in a Shiite area of Kabul and an assault on government workers in Kunduz. Soon after the Mazar-e-Sharif attack, terrorists bombed a mosque in Kunduz and exploded a mine in a Kabul market. Nearly 80 people, including children, died.
Although the Islamic State-Khorasan only claimed responsibility for the Mazar-e-Sharif bombing, it likely staged most of the attacks. The group has grown stronger since the Taliban takeover last August. Taliban-led prison breaks freed dozens of the Islamic State-Khorasan’s fighters, and the group no longer faces airstrikes—giving it more space to maneuver and regroup. Afghanistan’s economic stress has provided a fertile environment for recruitment. Above all, the Islamic State-Khorasan is keen to dent the legitimacy of its Taliban rival; the regime’s main message since seizing power is that it has restored peace to Afghanistan.
Modi visits Indian-administered Kashmir. Last Sunday, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi made his first public appearance in Jammu and Kashmir since his 2019 decision to revoke the region’s autonomy. In a speech in the village of Palli, Modi touted new infrastructure projects and emphasized the importance of development and integration. This message tracks with the government’s repeated justification for stripping the region of its autonomy: Fully integrating Jammu and Kashmir into India will enable it to benefit from social services and development projects, resulting in more prosperity and stability.
However, Modi’s critics say that his Hindu nationalist government wants to exert more control over Muslim-majority Kashmir and that it hopes to shift the demographic balance by encouraging members of the country’s Hindu majority to settle there. Moreover, Modi’s calls for unity in Kashmir came at a particularly divisive moment for India, with communal unrest—and especially anti-Muslim violence—breaking out in three different states in recent days.
Sri Lanka gets some relief. Sri Lanka announced on Tuesday that the World Bank has agreed to provide a $600 million relief package for the country’s collapsing economy. The assistance will be released in two phases, with the first tranche of funds intended for food, medicine, and energy needs. Meanwhile, the International Monetary Fund reported that it had “fruitful” talks on a bailout package with visiting Sri Lankan officials in Washington, although its insistence on new austerity measures won’t sit well with suffering Sri Lankans.
Although Colombo may have received some good news on the economic front, it still faces a political crisis, with pressure building on the governing Rajapaksa brothers—President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa. Protesters are demanding their ouster and have gained some support from members of the ruling party, including from a cabinet minister. The Rajapaksas still show no sign of stepping down, and this intransigence could add to the anger of anti-government protesters.
Quote of the Week
“It is going to get worse before it gets better. It is going to be a painful few years ahead.”
—Sri Lankan Finance Minister Ali Sabry on his country’s economy
Under the Radar
According to new data from the Mumbai-based Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), millions of Indians—and especially women—are leaving the labor force. The overall labor participation rate dropped from 46 to 40 percent between 2017 and 2022, according to CMIE, with 21 million women leaving the workforce.
The reasons for this exodus are varied, according to CMIE. Some people prefer to subsist on income from government transfers, property rental, or pensions from elderly household members. Others may lack the skills required for available jobs. Many women face too many obligations at home.
At first blush, this data may look like bad news for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Unemployment has been a concern for several years, and in recent months violent protests erupted over joblessness in India. The government’s new budget features few immediate-term job relief programs. But the BJP’s strong performance in recent state elections suggests it’s not getting punished for the problem.
Still, the reality that millions of Indians are resigning themselves to their unemployed status has negative economic implications: India is seemingly squandering its “demographic dividend”—the large number of young, working-age people relative to the population.
With local election campaigns heating up in Nepal, a Kathmandu Post editorial laments the broken promises of political parties. “Elections in Nepal have routinely become an opportunity for Nepali parties to manufacture lies … it is important to call them out, for some of them out-step the local government’s constitutional boundaries and mislead voters,” it argues.
In Pakistan Today, writer Attiya Munawer argues that the new Pakistani government has inherited major challenges and can’t simply blame them on its predecessor. “The present government is making a fuss over the tunnels laid by the previous government. If the previous government has really laid any tunnels then it is the job of the present government to clear them,” she writes.
Hiren Pandit pushes back in the Dhaka Tribune against fears that Bangladesh could experience a debt crisis that produces the type of economic hardship now seen in Sri Lanka. “Our country was never a defaulter and will not be a defaulter in the days to come … our firm belief and expectation is that Bangladesh will be Bangladesh, not Sri Lanka. The soil under our feet is strong,” he argues.
Michael Kugelman is the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly South Asia Brief. He is the director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington. Twitter: @michaelkugelman
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