Meteorologists have warned that if the current heatwave conditions persist in the state, more people could die.
Bhubaneswar: Mounting heatwave-related deaths and the ever louder screams for drinking water is the new normal in Odisha. Since the beginning of April, the state has become a blistering chamber of sorts. With more than 100 deaths due to sunstroke – the government’s confirmed figure hovers around just 10 – the situation is only getting worse. Peak summer is still days away and if the current heatwave conditions persist, there could be more deaths and even more misery, meteorologists have warned.
The heatwave last year was less fierce, with about 67 deaths. But that is of little solace, because a definite pattern has emerged over the past couple of years. The state has gone from a mild climate zone until a decade ago to having extremely hot weather. Heatwaves have become a standard feature in Odisha’s hinterland and have been claiming more lives than any other natural calamity. For instance, a severe heat wave in 1998 killed around 2,200 people.
In the current spell, central and western Odisha have been the worst affected. Titlagarh (euphemistically called tatlagarh, meaning a place on the frying pan) was officially the hottest town in the country on April 24, with the temperature shooting up to 48.5°C .
The Indian meteorology department defines a heatwave as conditions in which the normal maximum temperature remains between 40-44°C . If the day’s temperature is five or more degrees above this range, then it is classified as a severe heatwave. Two temperature zones in Odisha qualify for the latter tag: north-central Odisha (Balasore, Cuttack, Baripada, Phulabani, Keonjhar, Chandbali and Bhubaneswar) and western Odisha (Titlagarh, Bhawanipatna, Jharsuguda, Bolangir, Anugul, Sambalpur, Sundergarh and Hirakud).
A study titled Climate Change Impacts and Vulnerability Assessment for Odisha, conducted by Pratap K. Mohanty of the Berhampur University’s department of marina sciences, points out that the duration of heat spells in Odisha during 1998-2008 was constantly on the upside, resulting in more deaths.
Another study by the Washington-based Institute of Policy Studies says Odisha emits close to 3% of the world’s total greenhouse gases. The state’s industries and coal-fired power plants discharge 164 million tonnes of carbon dioxide annually. This is equivalent to about 3% of the projected growth in man-made greenhouse gases anticipated globally over the next decade. This could be the reason for the rising heat.
There has also been a massive loss of green cover in the state. Odisha’s Forest and Environment Minister Bikram Keshari Arukha was the only one to tell the assembly recently that more than four lakh trees were felled for various development projects in the last three years. While the debate continues on whether Odisha’s rising summer temperature is due to eroding greenery, the government’s admission gives one an idea about how forest cover is fast depleting in 11 of the state’s 30 districts.
Road expansion is said to be the major culprit for the indiscriminate cutting of trees. Barren hillocks are responsible for the exceptionally high temperatures in places like Titlagarh and Jharsuguda. Although the India State of Forest Report, 2015 said Odisha managed to increase its forest cover by seven square kilometres – from 48,903 square km in 2011 to 50,354 square km last year – things look like they’re back to square one.
Odisha’s proximity to the sea is another reason for the abnormal rise of surface temperatures. Surface heat is the key to the formation of depressions over the Bay of Bengal, which invariably regulate the weather pattern in Odisha, West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh. Even a slight rise in temperature is big enough to change the overall dynamics of weather formation in the Bay. As the land surface get heated up by non-natural misdemeanours, it directly impacts the behaviour of the sea.
Research shows that a change of 0.5°C in the surface temperature can alter the character of the south-west monsoons, which is so vital for precipitation. One striking abnormality being predicted by climatologists will become more and more apparent as the years pass: there will be fewer depressions in the Bay of Bengal, causing less rainfall.
Environmental degradation coupled with random industrialisation has created havoc in Odisha’s ecology. The solutions to this crisis are evident: more climate-resilient actions. Green activist S.N. Patra agrees, “Our forests are dwindling. More and more concrete buildings are coming up. We need an environment-friendly approach to manage the situation.”
The author is a senior journalist based in Odisha.