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Why extreme temperatures in South Asia should jolt governments into action

Subhra Priyadarshini

doi:10.1038/nindia.2018.104 Published online 13 August 2018

Agricultural regions in the Ganges and Indus river basins are predicted to experience soaring temperatures.

© S. Priyadarshini

One of the first things that Pakistan’s Prime Minister-elect Imran Khan wants to implement when he takes office this week is an unprecedented reforestation drive – planting 10 billion trees to reverse the effect of extreme weather crippling the country. He has already announced plans to revive his “Billion Tree Tsunami” dream project that forested 350,000 hectares in the northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa territory between 2014 and 2017, when Khan led the canopy call to build a green armour against incessant flooding, extreme temperatures, prolonged droughts and unpredictable rainfall in many parts of Pakistan.

Khan’s decision to deal with the ecological disaster head on – way before attending to the festering political issues of Kashmir or terrorism – is grounded in alarming projections by his ministry of climate change that estimates extreme weather will cost Pakistan up to US$14 billion every year, besides hundreds of lives and millions of livelihoods.

Pakistan has been scalding under an intense heatwave followed by a season of erratic rainfall. The country’s southern city Nawabshah burned at 50.2 degrees Celsius (122.4 degrees Fahrenheit) this summer, making for the hottest April day ever recorded in the history of the planet. Surging temperatures have spawned new glacial lakes in the remote mountain valleys. Of the 3,000 glacial lakes in the high reaches of northern Pakistan, 52 could burst anytime, according to the government, resulting in large-scale flooding sweeping away hundreds of thousands of mountain dwellers, their homes and agricultural lands.

These weather extremes have become the new normal for much of South Asia, home to a fifth of the world’s population. Last year, the region saw more than 1,400 people succumbing to extreme heat alone.

South Asia's hotspots

The World Bank study predicts that living standards in these hotspots will deteriorate in a carbon-intensive scenario.

© World Bank

A World Bank study1 released in June estimates that 800 million people – almost half of South Asia’s population – living in “hotspots” of high temperatures and erratic rainfall will be affected if the governments do nothing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The World Bank’s lead economist Muthukumara Mani says the cost of such inaction would see incomes drop by 14.4 per cent in Bangladesh, 9.8 per cent in India, and 10 per cent in Sri Lanka by 2050.

“When we talk about global climate change, South Asia is always at the epicentre,” Mani said. “Combined with poverty, this is a serious threat for South Asia’s future growth and developmental aspirations.”

The signs of a future malady are beginning to show – whether it’s in the muggy, sweltering heat of Delhi, where schools remained closed past summer holidays this year, or in the scorching daytime temperatures of Karachi, accentuated by massive power outages that left at least 65 people dead.

India's predicted hotspots.

© World Bank

The World Bank study showed seven out of the top 10 so-called hotspots projected to be the worst affected in India were in the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra. “We were surprised. India is such a vast country. How could these hotspots be concentrated in one small region?" 

Digging into anecdotal evidence, the researchers linked this to an socio-economic anomaly – that of Vidarbha’s spate of farmer suicides in recent years. Similarly, in Sri Lanka, the north and northwestern parts such as Jaffna, just emerging out of civil war but still reeling under social upheavals, were projected to be the most affected. The Chittagong division in Bangladesh, specifically the port city of Cox’s Bazar housing the world’s largest refugee camp of Rohingya, also emerges as a future hotspot.

“Clearly, something is happening already in these projected hotspots,” Mani notes.

Climate change and the urban poor

Heightened urbanisation in South Asia has seen a significant increase in the number of urban poor. “My suspicion is that the urban poor is actually the largest single hotspot as far as climate change is concerned,” says Anand Patwardhan, a professor of public policy at the University of Maryland in the US.

Though the stewing humidity has begun to abate with the onset of the Asian monsoon, Elfatih Eltahir, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at MIT, USA says South Asian cities will become uninhabitable in the next few decades. Together with colleagues from The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and  Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles, he predicted2 that deadly heat waves could be staring South Asia in the face. In the absence of measures to reduce carbon emissions, these heat waves could strike regions in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh as early as 2050. The most affected, they say, would be the densely populated agricultural regions in the Ganges and Indus river basins.

Eltahir’s team measured South Asia’s extreme heat conditions with a yardstick called the ‘wet bulb temperature’ that combines temperature, humidity and the human body’s ability to cool down in response. Under this measure, 35°C is considered an upper limit for human survivability in a natural, non- air-conditioned environment. 

Eltahir says South Asia, with its unprecedented combination of severe natural hazards and acute vulnerability, presents a rather serious and unique risk if climate change goes unabated.

“There seems to be no solution in sight,” says Sushil Kumar Dash, a professor at the Centre for Atmospheric Sciences, Indian Institute of Technology Delhi. “The heat is killing – and for the urban poor with no access to air conditioning, the consequences of heat extremes are going to be miserable.”

Dash, who has been studying temperature extremes in four Indian cities Delhi, Chennai, Mumbai and Guwahati, unforeseen changes in temperature will force coping mechanisms at the community level.  "Given such extremes, it would be prudent to replace concrete with traditional thatch and mud to build houses, and bring back natural cotton fabrics to stay cool. It will certainly be difficult in resource poor settings to provide air-conditioning to everyone."

A shorter version of this article was first published in South China Morning Post.


References

1. Muthukumara, M. et al. South Asia's hotspots: Impacts of temperature and precipitation changes on living standards. World Bank (2018) PDF

2. Im, E-S et al. Deadly heat waves projected in the densely populated agricultural regions of South Asia. Science Advances 3, e1603322 (2017) doi: 10.1126/sciadv.1603322