Climate Change Could Bring Deadly Humid Heatwaves In South Asia

Washing away the heat in 'Blue City' in Rajasthan, India. SVETLANA EREMINA/Shutterstock

Around a fifth of the world, at least 1.6 billion people, live in South Asia. It’s also an area with more than its fair share of poverty and political troubles. Unless the world’s carbon emissions are drastically cut, scientists predict that they could be faced with more challenges in the form of deadly heatwaves. 
 
In a “business-as-usual” scenario, the balmy Indus and Ganges river basins in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh could be struck with humid heatwaves that kill tens of thousands of healthy people by 2100, according to a new study published in the journal Science Advances.
 
The problem is the area’s heat and intense humidity, an index based on a reading known as wet-bulb temperature. Higher levels of humidity can be dangerous because the moisture in the air inhibits the body’s ability to cool itself by sweating.
 
Due to this deadly combination, approximately 75 percent of the population is projected to endure climate conditions considered dangerous for most humans and 4 percent will experience unsurvivable heat, exceeding wet-bulb temperature of 35°C (95°F). Even for perfectly healthy people, that’s enough to kill.
 
This part of the world already suffers from intense heatwaves. In 2015, one of the hottest heatwaves ever recorded descended on India and Pakistan, killing some 3,500 people. Due to the area’s dense population and high levels of poverty, shelter and medical assistance can be harder to come by, making the humid heatwaves all the more deadly.
 
However, the team also claims this grim future can be avoided.
 
Researchers from MIT and Loyola Marymount University used numerous climate models to arrive at these predictions. They were formed in a “business-as-usual” scenario, where our carbon emissions remain unchecked. However, other models show that these risks could be significantly reduced if the world takes immediate and strong moves to reduce emissions.
 
"There is value in mitigation, as far as public health and reducing heat waves," MIT professor of environmental engineering Elfatih Eltahir said in a statement. "With mitigation, we hope we will be able to avoid these severe projections. This is not something that is unavoidable."
 
It’s been another depressing week for environmental news, especially for India. A new study found that temperature increases and declines in rainfall may have contributed to 60,000 Indian farmers and workers committing suicide over the past 30 years. Another study from the past few days said that climate change will result in many staple crops being drained of their protein, leaving 150 million people across 47 different countries – but most notably India – at risk of protein deficiency by 2050.
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