Record temperatures in India are causing toxic landfills to burst into flames as the country grapples with heat waves

April 28, 2022, 6:29 PM UTC

Temperatures are rising in India as heat waves sweep across the country. 

The scorching heat has resulted in food shortages and classroom closures, and officials are now being forced to juggle power cuts with the growing pressure on health services as the rising heat endures.

“Temperatures are rising rapidly in the country and rising much earlier than usual,” India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi told state chief ministers on Wednesday.

April usually marks the beginning of summer in India. Extreme heat in the country comes later in May and June. The heat begins to dissipate when the cooling monsoon season begins. But after India recorded its hottest March day since the meteorological department began taking records, climate scientists believe India’s spring season is shortening and turning into summer due to the accumulation of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere. 

“We are seeing increasing incidents of fires in various places—in jungles, important buildings, and hospitals—in the past few days,” Modi said in an online conference on Thursday. On top of the sweltering heat, fires have broken out in Delhi’s dump yards, also filling the air with toxic smoke in the world’s most polluted capital.

Massive Fire Broke Out At The Bhalswa Landfill Site In Delhi
A ragpicker collects scrap in the backdrop of a massive fire that broke out at the Bhalswa landfill site on April 27, 2022 in New Delhi, India.
Sanchit Khanna—Hindustan Times/Getty Images

Blue-collar workers more likely to suffer

As scorching heat blazes through India, the country is also facing its worst electricity shortage in more than six years, forcing schools to close early and sending people indoors.

In Rajasthan, four-hour power cuts for factories have been scheduled, disrupting industrial activity that only just picked up after months of COVID-caused stagnation. The four-hour power cuts also expose thousands of families in the desert state to extreme temperatures.

Power cuts are also only likely to worsen in the coming days as heatwaves and an increase in economic activity increase demand for electricity. The leap in power demand has left India searching for coal, which is currently at the lowest pre-summer levels in at least nine years, according to Reuters. The heat is most likely to affect blue-collar workers, who are most likely exposed to heat throughout the day.

Heat a health risk for more than a billion

In the country’s capital New Delhi, temperatures have soared past 40°C (104°F) and are forecast to stay around 44°C until Sunday. The extreme heat puts more than a billion people at risk of heat-related health impacts, scientists said.

Heat-related deaths increase exponentially with rising temperature. 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 more than 100 deaths—rose by 146%, according to the 2017 study Increasing probability of mortality during Indian heatwaves.

In “wet bulb” terms—a recording of temperature from a thermometer wrapped in a wet cloth to take into account humidity—cities in southern India saw temperatures rise to 29°C (84°F). Humans can survive only a few hours outdoors if wet-bulb temperatures exceed 35°C. High wet-bulb temperatures are particularly crucial to track, as people in rural areas won’t have access to air conditioners or cooling stations.   

And as things get hotter in India, electricity shortages may also rule out the salvation of air conditioning.

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