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NEW DELHI — When the temperature topped 120 degrees (49 Celsius), residents of the northern Indian city of Churu stopped going outside and authorities started hosing down the baking streets with water.
Churu — home to more than 100,000 people — has been the hottest place in India in recent days, part of a summer heat wave suffocating most of the country as temperatures rise above normal even for this sweltering time of year.
Earlier this week, the Health Ministry issued an advisory with do’s and don’ts for staying safe in rising temperatures. They included avoiding the sun between noon and 3 p.m. and refraining from drinking alcohol, tea and coffee. The National Disaster Management Authority weighed in with its own tips: Cover your head, cross-ventilate your room and try sleeping under a slightly wet sheet.
That adds up to a huge policy challenge, noted Hem Dholakia, an environmental researcher, in a piece published last month. “Science as well as our subjective experiences has made it unequivocally clear that longer, hotter and deadlier summers are poised to become the norm due to climate change,” he wrote. Every Indian city needs a plan for combating extreme heat, he said.
A pioneer in that effort was the city of Ahmedabad in the state of Gujarat, which first instituted a heat action plan in 2013. The city started an early warning system to inform the public about extreme temperatures, expanded access to drinking water, encouraged employers to change work schedules so people spent less time outdoors and repainted roofs so they reflected rather than absorbed heat. One study suggested the city avoided more than 1,000 deaths each year thanks to such measures.
India’s National Disaster Management Authority has also worked, with considerable success, to reduce the number of deaths due to heat waves in recent years. According to government figures, such fatalities have fallen from 700 in 2016 to 20 last year.
Kuldeep Srivastava, head of the regional forecasting center at the India Meteorological Department in New Delhi, said that the current heat wave would abate within a few days as moisture-laden winds push into the most severely affected regions. But real relief will come only with the arrival of the monsoon season. Rains are expected to begin any day now in Kerala, on India’s southwestern coast, but will take several more weeks to work their way north.
Meanwhile, in Churu, normal life has stopped. Hanuman Verma, a local journalist, said that residents are hunkering down in their homes, avoiding work and refraining from shopping during the day. The roads are so hot they could burn bare feet, he said. “I have lived here all my life but have never felt this hot before,” said Verma, 65. “It is horrid.”
Devkaran Gurawa, Churu’s deputy chief medical and health officer, said the city had arranged extra cooling in hospitals and asked residents not to venture outside after 11 a.m. If leaving home is unavoidable, he said, people were advised to cover their heads with a towel and carry a water bottle.
In the capital of New Delhi, where the temperature Wednesday afternoon was 108 degrees (42 Celsius), people whose work obliged them to be outside struggled to find ways to mitigate the heat.
Rakesh Saxena, 50, a security guard, said that sitting inside his guard cabin — topped with a tin roof and equipped with a small, unreliable fan — was so hot it felt “like burning.” He prefers to sit under a nearby tree. “At least it is breezy outside,” he said.
Joanna Slater is the India bureau chief for The Washington Post. Prior to joining The Post, she was a foreign correspondent for the Globe & Mail in the United States and Europe and a reporter for the Wall Street Journal. Her previous postings include assignments in Mumbai, Hong Kong and Berlin. Follow