It might feel strange to be talking about heatwaves when many parts of India are still in the firm grip of winter. But I recently came across an important new study on the extreme costs of humid heat, especially in India, which reminded me of a long-form story on the subject that I had done two years ago.
The question I’d tried to answer with that story was quite simple: is extreme heat making India unlivable? Summer heatwaves and the effects of devastating heat and humidity is becoming a common, annual feature across India. It’s probably the most pervasive impact of climate change that we’re already seeing in the country. For the story, I spoke with climate scientists, city planners and other experts. What they had to tell me was extremely concerning: not only is extreme heat stress rising, but its duration through the year is also rising. Combined with the rise of a more deadly humid heat, a condition where the human body is simply unable to function, India is reeling.
As part of that story, I had also looked at what this means for much of outdoor labour in India. According to an International Labour Organisation (ILO) report from 2019, India is projected to lose the equivalent of 34 million full-time jobs in 2030 due to heat stress, with agriculture and construction being particularly badly hit. Additionally, another 2019 study conducted by the University of Chicago's Climate Impact Lab and Tata Centre for Development highlighted the fact that an additional 1.5 million people may die in India each year due to extreme heat by 2100.
A new study, published earlier this month in the journal Environmental Research Letters, also talks about the impact of heat on Indian labour. The study, Global Labor Loss Due To Humid Heat Exposure Underestimated For Outdoor Workers, by researchers at Duke University, attempts to state clearly the impact of extreme humid heat on labour losses. According to the study, globally, humid heat has caused “650 billion hours of annual lost labor (148 million full time equivalent jobs lost), 400 billion hours more than previous estimates.”
The study states that India, especially, lost approximately 259 billion hours of labour every year between 2001-2020, due to humid heat. “To put this in perspective, India experiences annual productivity losses from high humid heat equivalent to almost 7% of its 2017 GDP,” the report states. The study is very clear that labour losses are the most pronounced in India. The country accounts for nearly half the total global losses. These losses are over four times more than those suffered by China, which comes next.
As we gear up for another summer that will probably be as hot and humid as the now annual trend, this is something that the government needs to wake up to. “The main thing is that of course there is this extreme level above which people really can’t physically survive for a very long period. And we are coming closer to that threshold,” adaptation and water resources specialist Christian Siderius told me when I spoke to him for my story. As the new report makes it very clear, the threat is continually rising.