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Brutal heat wave in India puts 330 million people at risk

An Indian farmer tries to revive an unconscious cow dying on an unploughed field during a water crisis in Gondiya village on April 21. About 330 million people are suffering from drought in India, the government has said. (Sanjay Kanojia/AFP/Getty Images)

India is in the grips of a monstrous pre-monsoon heat wave that has killed more than 160 people in recent weeks. The majority of the deaths have been in the southern states of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, but soaring temperatures have compounded ongoing drought and water shortages across the country and threaten to affect as many as 330 million people, according to figures the Indian government reported to the Supreme Court.

The hottest summer months in India tend to be May and June, so the current spell in April has officials concerned about a significant spike in heat-related deaths. Last year, a heat wave claimed 2,422 lives in India, the highest heat-related  death toll in more than two decades. In neighboring Pakistan, which last year suffered its worst heat spell, authorities have moved to open 500 response centers that would provide shelter and cold water, according to Reuters.

Many of the dead have included laborers and poor farmers who have no choice but to work outside in blistering conditions, with temperatures routinely exceeding 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Authorities in some Indian states have issued warnings for people to stay indoors, banned construction during the hottest times of the day and ordered some schools to extend their summer holidays so that children aren't exposed to the weather.

Heat waves have caused about 22,562 deaths in India since 1992, with numbers by and large increasing in recent years. Senior government officials pointed to the effect of climate change last year; the 2015 heat wave is considered the fifth worst in recorded history.

"Let us not fool ourselves that there is no connection between the unusual number of deaths from the ongoing heat wave and the certainty of another failed monsoon," India's minister for science, technology and earth sciences, Harsh Vardhan, said in June. "It's not just an unusually hot summer, it is climate change."