Southeast Asia’s months-long heat wave is untenable for human health

India has logged the hottest spring on record in a century.
Extreme heat in Southeast Asia has brought summer early.

Extreme heat is rolling through South Asia as climate change brings summer weather early. Temperatures are already pushing past 120°F in some regions.

The current heat waves are severe—this year, India recorded its hottest March and April in more than a century. Some schools have shut down early, hospitals are on alert, and at least 25 people have died from heatstroke.

“Before human activities increased global temperatures, we would have seen the heat that hit India earlier this month around once in 50 years,” Mariam Zachariah, who researches water and climate at the Grantham Institute at Imperial College London, told The Guardian. “But now it is a much more common event—we can expect such high temperatures about once in every four years.”

Many in the region have no respite. Only a fraction of people in South Asia have access to air conditioning; as of 2019, just 7 percent of Indian households had AC. Even so, use of cooling technology has been skyrocketing—so much so that the Indian states of Rajasthan, Gujarat, and Andhra Pradesh are imposing power cuts on factories to cut down on energy consumption. In the midst of the heat waves, India is also facing a potential energy crisis as reserves of coal, their main source of electricity, run thin.

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These prolonged periods of extreme heat are untenable for human health. “[With] heat plus humidity, at some stage [it] becomes almost impossible for the human body’s organs to function normally,”  Ulka Kelkar, a Bengaluru-based economist and climate change expert with the World Resources Institute, told NPR. “Basically the body just cannot cool itself, and a large fraction of our population in India still works outside in the fields, on building construction, in factories which are not cooled.”

In addition to the heatwaves, there has also been a lack of rainfall this season, stressing many regions’ water supply. And the drought will likely continue until the annual monsoon rains later in the summer. The extreme heat is also shriveling up India’s grain supply, forecasting a disappointing harvest this year that will hurt local farmers as well as the region’s economy at large.

The intense heat strained the regions’ Muslim populations, who were fasting for Ramadan during the month of April. The Indian state of Bihar advised its people to not leave their homes after midday, causing economic harm to local businesses. “People have been staying inside their house in [the] day time. We are struggling to earn a livelihood,” Rameshwar Paswan, a rickshaw puller, told Australia’s ABC News.

This extreme weather is “part of a broader climate-change signal,” Amir AghaKouchak, a climate researcher at the University of California, Irvine, told Tech Review. Even incremental increases in global temperature will cause extreme heat events like this to become more and more frequent.