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‘Impossible to work after 10 o’clock in the morning’: India swelters in hottest March in 122 years

April 20, 2022, 12:06 PM UTC

India has recorded its hottest March since the country’s meteorological department began keeping records 122 years ago, threatening lives and the food supply just as the country is about to enter its hottest season.

The average nationwide temperature in March was 33.1°C (91.6°F), beating out the 32.7°C recorded in March 2021—itself the third warmest on record.

“It’s become impossible to work after 10 o’clock in the morning,” Sunil Das, a rickshaw puller in Noida near Delhi told Quartz.

“I head back home after 10 and resume in the evening when the heat has subsided a bit,” Das said, adding, “It has reduced my earnings but what alternative do I have?”

While March is usually a cooler month in India, coming before the hottest summer months of April and May, climate scientists believe India’s spring season is shortening and metamorphosing into summer due to the accumulation of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere.

India’s weather office noted the high temperatures are also due to low rainfall, which was 72% below the 50-year average in the month of March—and as much as 89% below in the northwest of the country. Scientists point to climate change as the main source behind the rising number of heatwaves.

“There is a definite link between climate change and the rise in average temperatures, which is worsening the impact of heatwaves,” Mahesh Palawat, vice-president of meteorology and climate change at weather forecaster Skymet Weather Services, told Quartz.

Rising heatwave days

India is about to get hotter as the country enters into its summer months, which end when the rain-filled monsoon season begins. India has seen a visible surge in the number of heatwave days between April and June, with days where temperatures rise above 40°C (104°F) in the plains and 30°C (86°F) in the hilly regions rising steadily every decade.

Between 1981 and 1990, India’s meteorological department counted 413 heatwave days; between 2001 and 2020, there were 575 heatwave days; and between 2011 and 2020, 600 hot days were counted, mostly in the inland areas.

“There is no doubt that extreme heat events are increasing in India,” Palawat said, adding “global warming has a primary role in this, although there are several other factors at play as well.”

This has deadly effects. While India’s average temperature only rose by some 0.5°C between 1960 and 2009, the probability of a massive heat-related mortality event—or a heat event marked by over 100 deaths—rose by 146%, according to the 2017 study Increasing probability of mortality during Indian heatwaves.

Food supply shortage

The early onset of summer and the increasing number of heatwave days have also taken a toll on wheat output. India’s domestic wheat prices are up by 5% to 7% due to lower crop yields across India. The states of Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh—the breadbasket states of the country—all reported a 10%-35% fall in yield due to the early onset of summer and the excess rainfall seen in December and January.

Heatwaves across India have also been combined with hot, dry winds across the north Indian plains, leading to unusual farm fires in April that have further dented output.

Many nations are looking to India’s farmers to make up for the drop in global wheat supply caused by Russia’s war on Ukraine. But the damage caused by soaring temperatures, combined with rising fertilizer prices—also caused by the war—has left farmers in India struggling to fill that role.

“It has been a nightmare for me, having to queue up endlessly to buy fertilizers,” said Shiv Ram Singh, a rice and wheat farmer in central India’s Madhya Pradesh state, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“[I] wake up in the middle of the night because someone has an extra sack they are selling on the black market.”

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