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Heatwave further exposes inequality in India

Around 323 million people are prone to a high risk from extreme heat exposing lack of access to fans, air conditioning and refrigerators, a UN-backed organization report said

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India listed on the top in a list of “critical” countries which have the largest populations facing heat-related dangers ranging from immediate deaths from overheating to impacts on food security and incomes. The list includes China, Indonesia and Pakistan as well.

New Delhi’s Temperatures hit 49C (120F) in some regions in mid-May after India recorded its hottest March in 122 years and an unusually hot April.

India’s electricity demand has hit a record high with a surge in the use of air conditioning triggering the worst power crisis in more than six years. Although nearly all households in India have access to electricity, but ironically, only a fraction of its 1.4-billion population owns any cooling appliances, found the report by SE4ALL – a UN backed organization.

As demand for cooling will mount in coming years, it will also add pressure to India’s over-stretched electricity systems and lead to a potential increase in planet-warming emissions, said Brian Dean, head of energy efficiency and cooling at SE4ALL.

He urged the authorities to quickly implement the India Cooling Action Plan, launched in 2019, which aims to cut cooling demand by up to 25 percent by 2038 through measures including developing new cooling technology and designing buildings with natural airflow.

Scientists have linked the early onset of an intense summer to climate change, and said more than a billion people in India and neighboring Pakistan were in some way at risk from the extreme heat.

Read more: Heatwaves hit India as birds fall from the sky

The official record shows that 25 people have died from heat stroke since late March, the highest toll in the past five years. This number is just “the tip of the iceberg”, said Dileep Mavalankar, head of the Indian Institute of Public Health, a private university in Gandhinagar in the western state of Gujarat.

Mavalankar helped implement South Asia’s first Heat Action Plan (HAP) in Ahmedabad in Gujarat in 2013, after the city saw more than 1,300 deaths in a 2010 heatwave. He credited the HAP for saving up to 1,200 lives every summer.

The plan also directs people to seek respite from heatwaves in “cooling centres” such as air-conditioned public buildings, shops and malls, temples and parks. For some, they can be life-saving.

Mavalankar and SE4ALLs Dean both called for the broader use of “cool roofs” with reflective surfaces or coatings to reduce temperatures in low-income and informal housing. From building heat-resistant homes to creating more green spaces, Mavalankar said prompt action is needed to help the poor and vulnerable survive a hotter world. “Temperatures may increase by three to five degrees in coming summers,” he warned. “We have to prepare right now.”