More than 2,300 people died from a 2015 heat wave
India faces a host of challenges to deploying a comprehensive plan
India is facing another record hot and potentially deadly summer.
Hundreds of people died last year as swaths of the country were struck by drought amid temperatures as high as 51 degrees Celsius (124 degrees Fahrenheit).
That followed a 2015 heat wave that left more than 2,300 people dead.
The Indian Meteorological Department predicts that this summer will see an average temperature increase of 1 degree in some of the hottest parts of the country such as Rajasthan and Maharashtra states, which as of April were already seeing highs of over 45 C (113 F).
New Delhi, India’s capital, hit 43.7 C on April 18 – the city’s hottest day that month since 2010.
An average increase of one degree over three months is “substantial,” said CNN meteorologist Taylor Ward. It will result in higher temperatures for longer periods of time and more potentially deadly heat waves.
While India is scrambling to prepare for the hot weather, experts say the task is complicated by multiple overlapping levels of local and state government with responsibility for the issue.
Moves taken since 2015 have paid off, said K. J. Ramesh, director general of the India Meteorological Department (IMD), pointing to a sharp drop in heat deaths in 2016, compared with the year before.
“In 2015, the mortality was very high. But with just a little response from the states in 2016, the mortality was reduced by half,” said Ramesh. “This year we want to see that all states are working with us.”
Various states and municipalities have introduced early warning systems, public awareness campaigns and increased training for medical professionals, according to Dileep Mavalankar, an expert at the India Institute of Public Health (IIPH).
But he warned that the apparently lower figures for heat deaths in 2016 were likely a result of “gross under-reporting.”
“There’s no systematic way of reporting a heatstroke death,” Mavalankar said.
Anup Srivastava, a consultant with the Indian National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), said that while 11 states have prepared plans for this year’s heat wave, many more have not, and the NDMA lacks the ability to compel local governments to act.
More to do
Despite all the challenges, public health researchers and policy experts are optimistic.
A meeting held by the NDMA and IMD in March in an attempt to drum up support from local officials was widely attended, said Nehmat Kaur, a development policy economist with the Natural Resources Defense Council in India.
“Where we are today is absolutely commendable as opposed to three years ago,” she said. Then, the IMD did not send any weather warnings to state governments about the heat.
But Lipika Nanda, a regional IIPH director, said that gaps remain, chief among which is a more finely-tuned prediction method that would allow states to better know when heat alerts are needed.
At present, the threshold temperature for an alert in the eastern state of Odissa is higher than that at which deaths have occurred in the past, creating a risk that people will not protect themselves in potentially fatal heat, she said.
Critical temperatures also vary by geography, Nanda said. In Odissa, her team found more deaths in coastal regions than inland, making a statewide, one-size-fits-all alert less useful.
With temperatures already reaching 45 C in parts of India, and on the rise, the pressure is on to avoid another deadly summer.
CNN’s Taylor Ward contributed reporting.