A child collects drinking water in Rajasthan, India. Photo © J. Carl Ganter / Circle of Blue

By Zara Gounden, Circle of Blue – June 24, 2024

Fraser Byers, Circle of Blue reporter, recounts the moment he could practically chew on humid, smoggy air as he walked out of New Delhi airport last week. Making his way to Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan, he was struck by the sight of people lying on the cool, irrigated lawns outside the arrival zone of the Indira Gandhi International Airport as a last resort against the increasingly hot days.

 “This year’s southwest monsoon has stalled but is now arriving in the sweltering northern states. The low pressure will offer respite for millions of people, although high temperatures will persist for some time longer; umbrellas are still carried by most to block the sun, rather than any rain.”

Northern India is experiencing first-of-its-kind overwhelming extreme heat. New Delhi recently recorded its highest temperature ever with multiple weather stations recording temperatures over 49°C (the previous record standing from 1998 at 48.4°C). Rajasthan is also experiencing similar conditions. The Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) stated in a press release that maximum temperatures in North Rajasthan have soared to 44-46°C, with temperatures 1.6°C to 3.0°C above normal for the state. Heatwave alerts have persisted, with both daytime and nighttime temperatures remaining unusually high, providing little relief. The IMD has issued warnings, highlighting the severity and persistence of these extreme temperatures.

“The topic of water resources was a concern of both major political coalitions that contested India’s general election two weeks ago; remembered by political signage still zip-tied across city street corners. Yet, at least anecdotally, environmental issues are not front and center of mainstream political dialogue in the country. PM Modi is a major proponent of international cooperation to meet the climate crisis, emphasizing the popular opinion on action based on equity, and the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities.”

In India, a heat wave is declared when the maximum temperature in the plains reaches at least 40°C and in hilly regions at least 30°C. A severe heatwave is identified when temperatures soar to 47°C or higher. Additionally, heatwaves are classified based on temperature deviations: a heat wave occurs when the departure from normal is 4.5°C to 6.4°C, while a severe heatwave is marked by a departure greater than 6.4°C. Alternatively, a heatwave is also declared if the actual maximum temperature is 45°C or above, with a severe heatwave at 47°C or higher.

Recreation of men lying on a cool grass patch outside New Delhi. Graphic © by Zara Gounden.

Once in Jaipur, Fraser elaborated on how the signs of extreme heat are evident all over the city. He wakes up at 5:30 in the morning to get a cool shower. Residential water tanks are often located on rooftops and heat up fast as the sun rises. He also gets up early to beat the morning traffic, although this has proven futile. Fraser details that traffic is often the worst part of his day. 

“This is a country still well-known for stubborn traffic, but with this heat, you boil in the black-tarpaulin back of an auto-rickshaw. Heat touches all of your senses.” 

Fraser describes how this has led to the rapid construction of makeshift structures at intersections made of bamboo material, supporting green fabric canopies that offer shade for those stopped at traffic lights.

Late May reports indicate that an estimated 122 people have already died in Rajasthan due to extreme heat conditions. The family hosting Fraser during his program with the US Department of State commented that this has been the hardest and hottest summer they have ever encountered in India. This extreme heat has only exacerbated existing water scarcity in Rajasthan. Already one of India’s driest regions, the state’s annual rainfall averages between 100 mm and 800 mm, and in many areas, groundwater is not available even for drinking purposes.

Fraser comments that he never has to worry about where to fill his water bottle each day but knows this is not the case for most people. “It’s strange to see opulent fountains of water and grass being watered in some places, but also know water is a limited resource to countless others,” he says.

The global rise in temperatures due to climate change contributes to extreme heat, particularly in South Asia, more frequent and severe. Countries like India, already accustomed to hot summers, are likely to see extreme heat become the new normal, with temperatures above 40 degrees Celsius becoming increasingly common.

Fraser will report from Jaipur, India, for the rest of the summer, documenting the effects of extreme heat and the ongoing water scarcity crisis.