Record temperatures of 45C have been set in Europe this week, sparking major health warnings. But in India, that’s just a normal summer’s day.
This week France issued unprecedented red alerts for heatwave conditions as an all-time record temperature of 45.9C was measured in the southern village of Gallargues-le-Montueux.
In northern India, where temperatures have exceeded 50C this month, some will have been wondering what all the fuss is about.
Because while Europe was sweltering, India and neighbouring Pakistan were hit with some of the hottest sustained conditions in decades.
At least 130 people are reported to have died since a heatwave began in mid-May, though in truth, poor record-keeping means the true toll of the scorching heat is likely far higher. The capital Delhi has experienced a June record of 48C, but the heatwave has encompassed a vast area from the state of Rajasthan in the west to Bihar in the east.
With cities, towns and villages receiving no respite for weeks on end, failure to keep cool can be deadly.
“When the temperature goes above 37C, the human body starts gaining heat,” explains Dileep Mavalankar, director of India’s first public health university, the Indian Institute of Public Health Gandhinagar. “The body tries to compensate by producing more sweat, meaning the heart has to pump faster and faster. People with weak hearts, kidneys or circulation – mainly old people or infants – their systems start to fail, and that’s how they end up in hospital.
“But even in young, robust people, if the body’s core temperature goes above 40C then the brain starts shutting down, and can suffer irreversible damage unless it is cooled down very rapidly. That is what leads to deaths.”
Scientists say that a warming planet makes heatwaves like the one Europe experienced in 2018 around twice as likely. However, is too soon to say how much of the current scorcher can be attributed to climate change.
Yet remarkably, the maximum temperatures recorded this summer in India – high though they may be – are within the limits of what might be expected due to normal yearly variation in May and June.
“We would see temperatures hitting 47C, 48C every summer,” says Sanjiv Phansalkar speaking about the countryside around Nagpur, Maharashtra, where grew up. An academic who works with the Transform Rural India foundation, he believes the rest of the world – and indeed young people growing up in south Asian cities today – can learn from traditional Indian techniques of how to cope with intense heat.
Most of his recommendations are straightforward – people should drink lots of water before they go out in the heat, and not wait until they feel thirsty, for example.
And he insists that back home in Nagpur, “anybody going out in the street in the summer without their head and ears being covered by a cloth, will be immediately stopped by a stranger and made to do so”.
Chilled drinks are “a big no-no”, he says, because of the shock they give to an overheated system. “We believe in the summer heat the best thing to drink is a hot cup of tea.”
If there is outdoor work that cannot be avoided, it should be started early in the morning and finished in the evening, with a break from 11am to 5pm. “Different regions have evolved different mechanisms but these are the basic principles, and all these things are very simple,” Phansalkar says.
There are some more outlandish home remedies for beating the heat too, he admits. In rural Maharashtra, he says, those who have to travel far for water are among the worst affected when a heatwave hits – and take extreme measures as a result.
“You should always carry an onion that you have cut in half,” he says. “And actually people would rub it on their body. I don’t know the principle behind it, I am just telling you what the community believes. We believe that an onion will always protect you against the heat.”
In Bihar, the most common recommendation for surviving a hot day is to drink “sattu”, a suspension of chickpea flour in water with salt and pepper to taste.
“The end result is… salty, I’m not sure it would be to European tastes,” a Bihari lawyer in Delhi says. “People say it works, but I honestly think it is just because it gets you to ingest fluids, and it is high in iron and protein – two things Indian diets usually lack.”
Mavalankar says belief in the heat-beating powers of onions – usually eaten raw in salads rather than applied directly to the skin – is common throughout India, though little studied beyond “a few student dissertations”.
The other traditional principles for surviving a heatwave, however, can be seen incorporated in the groundbreaking Ahmedabad “Heat Action Plan”, the first official programme in the country and one that is widely credited with saving hundreds of lives during a heatwave in that city in 2015.
As well as enforcing a midday break for workers, the plan included an early warning system for “red alert” days with maximum temperatures above 45C. The municipality was ordered to keep tree-filled parks and gardens open during the afternoon for the public to seek shade – in previous summers they would only be unlocked for wealthier residents to take their morning and evening walks.
Hospitals were ordered to be ready with ice packs in ambulances and staffed “cooling wards” during the hottest days, and programmes were launched to encourage homeowners with tin roofs to paint them white to reflect away heat from the city.
“What we have shown in Ahmedabad is an action plan is needed,” Mavalankar says. The problem is that, several years later, only around 15 cities in India have one.
France, for its part, does have a well-established official action plan for heatwaves. The biggest issue Europe faces – and will face more regularly as the climate warms – is that individuals are not prepared, or do not respect the dangers of heat, and the infrastructure isn’t designed to cope with temperatures above 40C.
In India, houses were traditionally designed with thick, insulating walls of both mud and mortar, high indoor ceilings and thatch roofs – all factors that helped keep the home cool in summer.
European homes do not have such features, let alone widespread adoption of air conditioning or even fans. And far from covering up and putting on a sunhat or cloth around their necks, when the sun comes out in Europe, people are more likely to strip off, grab a beer and sit outside unprotected, says Phansalkar.
“In India, we are acclimatised to the heat, and people – particularly rural people – are less worried about how they look. People [in Europe] might fall prey to fashion, rather than prioritising protection. That is a human tendency,” he says.
He notes that this vanity is encroaching on Indian cities as well, as young people in Delhi, Mumbai and elsewhere increasingly adopt western trends in clothing and behaviours.
“It is happening that people, particularly in the middle class, are getting deacclimatised to heat. They are living and working in the air-conditioned buildings, moving around in air-conditioned cars,” Mavalankar says.
He says that with only 2 per cent of Indians having access to air conditioning, and water shortages in major cities expected in the very near future, the government is sleep-walking into a situation where a water crisis and a heatwave will coincide, with disastrous results for modern city-dwellers.
“India also needs to relearn its traditional ways of dealing with extreme heat,” he says. “We have to work on both fronts – access to water, and improving resilience to heat. Because if we have to cope with an even hotter climate, water – not air conditioning – will be the main tool for survival.”