Record-breaking heat grips India,
causing blackouts & riots
by Joanna M. Foster
The usually chaotic streets of Delhi have been nearly deserted for days and the city’s markets have been eerily quiet. While the city is no stranger to warm weather, temperatures hovering around 115°F have kept even the heartiest sheltering indoors. In early June, a 63-year-old heat record melted away in a 118°F blaze.
“Every day, the heat seems to be getting more intense and is not bearable anymore. I have taken a week-long leave from work,” said Amar Luthra, a young professional, adding that he planned to head to the hills as he could no longer bear to commute on his motorcycle.
The sweltering heat has led to a dramatic surge in demand for electricity in the city of over 22 million causing widespread blackouts. While most people in Delhi are accustomed to sudden power cuts, the current heatwave makes such cuts not just annoying, but dangerous.
The government is now cutting power to shopping malls and switching off street lights in an attempt to reduce the strain on the grid. Government officials will also get their AC cut over the next few days.
While the heat on its own can be deadly, it also bakes the polluted air in the city, leading to dangerous spikes in ground level ozone. Analysis of real-time air quality data from the Delhi Pollution Control Committee (DPCC) monitoring stations from January to early June have recorded the rapid build-up of ozone as summer heat has intensified. In the week before the current heat wave set in, the average ozone level across the stations was 73 micrograms per cubic meter on June 1. That figure doubled by June 5, soaring past levels considered safe. There are around 8 million vehicles in Delhi that contribute to the toxic soup of chemicals that can cook into ozone.
In the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, similarly sweltering weather has also caused widespread blackouts and water shortages as pumps shut down. Electricity demand in the state rose to 11,000 megawatts, far beyond the 8,000-megawatt capacity of the grid. Less than half of the state’s 200 million people have access to electricity under normal circumstances, but the recent power outages set tempers ablaze. Riots broke out across the state over the weekend. Electricity substations were torched and power company officials taken hostage.
While even extremely hot weather in India may not seem out of place to some, India isn’t the only country enduring an early heatwave this year.
Central Europe has been baking in unseasonable heat in early June. Berlin has seen temperatures over 90°F since Sunday, more than 20 degrees hotter than normal. Eastern France and southern Germany have also been flirting with 100°F for days. Switzerland, best known for its snowy alps, has been enduring temperatures in the mid 90s all week.
And in Japan, 4 people died last week and at least 1,637 people were hospitalized as temperatures in some areas topped out at 99°F. Japan’s aging population makes the country especially vulnerable to the public health effects of extreme heat.
In the U.S. more people die from extreme heat than any other weather-related cause. Heat waves are expected to increase in intensity and frequency as humans emit more heat-trapping greenhouse gases and the climate changes.
◊ Joanna Foster reports for Climate Progress. Publ. here 13.6.2014.