India heat wave kills more than 1,800 people

NEW DELHI, India — More than 1,800 Indians have died during a weeks-long heat wave that has sent temperatures soaring to 47 degrees Celsius.

Meteorological officials called the heat wave “severe” and warned that it would continue for at least two days across a huge swath of the South Asian country from Tamil Nadu in the south to the Himalayan foothill state of Himachal Pradesh.

Most of those killed by heat-related conditions including dehydration and heat stroke have been in the southern states of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, where 100 people died just on Thursday (28 May 2015).

Officials are trying to contain the danger, pleading in vain for residents to stay inside. But many aren’t listening to the warnings, even as temperatures have topped 110 degrees throughout the country since mid-May.

“Either we have to work in fields for food or we stay at home — both ways, we may suffer death,” said Ram Ranjan, 42. The poor farmer lives in the southern state ofAndhra Pradesh, one of the hardest hit areas along with Telangana state. Together, the two regions account for more than 1,000 of the deaths.

More than 29% of the Indian population lives below the poverty line, and the majority are daily wage labors, according to the government figures. Because of that many are working outside in the extreme heat despite the risks.

States in northern India — Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh — are also dealing with extreme temperatures. In New Delhi, temperatures of 111 degrees are melting asphalt that’s distorting painted pedestrian crosswalks.

The heat wave is now the fifth-deadliest in recorded world history and the second-deadliest in India’s history, according to EM-DAT, the International Disaster Database. Authorities said the majority of the dead are labors working outside on farms and construction sites, or are elderly.

“Even contractors are refraining from assigning any work to us,” said Krishna Kumar, 35, a construction worker in Uttar Pradesh. “They are waiting for weather to cool down. Either way, we are out of choices.”

Rivers, pools and lakes are full of residents trying to beat the heat. Volunteers are handing out water, and people are sleeping outside because of the lack of electricity, sometimes on roofs, sometimes on the street.

Ajay Yadav, 49, cooked an omelette outdoors on a frying pan amid a heat wave in New Delhi, India, on May 29. Photo: Barcroft India
Ajay Yadav, 49, cooked an omelette outdoors on a frying pan amid a heat wave in New Delhi, India, on May 29.
Photo: Barcroft India

People across India were plunging into rivers, staying in the shade and drinking lots of water to try to beat the heat. Scorched crops and dying wildlife were reported, with some animals succumbing to thirst.

Many farmers and construction workers struggling with poverty were still working outdoors despite the risks. They along with the impoverished elderly were among the most vulnerable.

Cooling monsoon rains were expected next week in the south before gradually advancing north.

However, forecasting service AccuWeather warned of prolonged drought conditions, with the monsoon likely to be disrupted by a more active typhoon season over the Pacific.

“While there will be some rainfall on the region, the pattern could evolve into significant drought and negatively impact agriculture from central India to much of Pakistan,” senior meteorologist Jason Nicholls at AccuWeather said in a statement.

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