India's heatwave has killed 1,826 people in just over a week of scorching temperatures across the country. That is the highest death toll from exposure to heat in the last 20 years.
While India's summer is a killer every year, this time has been much worse. To find the reason, you need to go back two years, when rainfall was scant in Andhra Pradesh, and has recorded 1,334 deaths, the highest in the country. Prakasam district has recorded the highest number of deaths at 202, followed by Guntur (130) and Visakhapatnam (112).
"The rains which have eluded us for the last couple of years have created serious drought conditions," said K.T. Rama Rao, state Information and Technology Minister for Telangana, which was separated from Andhra Pradesh last year. "This is unprecedented."
Another reason could be a spike in temperature last week. "This could be due to the sudden change in temperatures after a prolonged wet February and March that had kept the temperatures cool," said Arjuna Srinidhi, programme manager, climate change, Centre for Science and Environment.
About 440 people have died in Telangana in the last week, including 100 deaths in the last 24 hours, compared with 31 deaths from heat-wave in the whole of 2014.
Temperatures in both states have soared upto 47 degrees Celcius (117 degrees Fahrenheit). The rest of India has also seen the mercury rising to blistering levels. 43 deaths were reported from Orissa and 13 in West Bengal. Other affected states include Delhi, Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan.
The worst hit are labourers working on construction sites. Driven by poverty, they often work long hours under the hot sun on barren land without shade-giving trees, and have no access to airconditioners at home.
Indian authorities announce a heatwave when the mercury hits 45 degrees Celcius, or if the highest temperature is over five degrees higher than normal for that time of the year.
Hospitals across the country, including in capital New Delhi, are overflowing with victims.
"Our wards are completely full," said J V Subbarao, medical officer at the Rajiv Gandhi Institute for Medical Sciences in Andhra Pradesh. "I have worked as a medical officer in this district for 40 years and I have never seen anything like this, with so many people arriving already dead."
In New Delhi, doctors said most people are arriving with symptoms of heat-stroke. Unconfirmed reports said two people had died of the heatwave in the city.
Power cuts were also reported in several areas as more people switched on airconditioners for longer periods, leading to shortage of power. That exacerbated the problem.
The heat wave is set to continue, with no respite in sight. Monsoon rains are expected in the southern state of Kerala next week, but will take a further two weeks to advance to the rest of India.
Cooling monsoon rains were expected to arrive next week in the southern state of Kerala and gradually advance north in coming weeks.
However, the situation might get worse next year because of global warming. "More heat waves were expected as globally temperatures have risen by an average .8 degrees in the past 100 years. Night-time temperatures are rising too, with Ahmedabad and Delhi recently reporting 39 and 36 degrees centigrade. The number of heat wave days may go up from about 5 to between 30 and 40 every year," a CSE statement said.
(With agency inputs)
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