Heatwave scorches: Kerala burns again, facing multipronged crisis

KSDMA is working with local authorities to assess risks, deploy resources, and implement preventive measures to mitigate the impact of the heat wave on communities.

ByDileep V Kumar

Published May 04, 2024 | 3:00 PMUpdatedMay 04, 2024 | 3:06 PM


Kerala, known for its lush greenery and pleasant climate, is grappling with a harsh summer this year.

The state, which witnessed exceptionally high temperatures in 2023 as well, now finds itself in the middle of another scorching summer as it is said to be experiencing an even harsher heat wave this year.

Unrelenting heat has gripped many regions, with temperatures significantly exceeding normal.

Amid a scorching summer, the state finds itself battling multiple crises across various districts including a dwindling water supply, heat-related illness, agricultural setbacks, and looming power shortages, painting a bleak picture of the state’s current predicament.

However, there’s a glimmer of hope on the horizon as the summer showers are expected to arrive on 6 May.

Also Read: Farmers suffer in sunburnt Kerala as mercury soars

‘No urban heat island’

Talking to South First, Kerala State Disaster Management Authority (KSDMA) member secretary Sekhar L Kuriakose said that the heat situation across the state was being closely monitored.

He added that advisories were being issued daily, urging people to stay hydrated, avoid strenuous activity during peak heat hours, and wear protective clothing when venturing outdoors.

The KSDMA was also working with local authorities to assess risks, deploy resources, and implement preventive measures to mitigate the impact of the heat wave on communities.

Asked why the state was experiencing such sweltering conditions, Kuriakose says atmospheric humidity is the culprit, “Kerala is a coastal state and thus its atmospheric humidity will be usually high. If the amount of moisture content in the atmosphere is high the heat experienced by a human body will also increase.”

He explains, “That means if a place having a maximum temperature of 35 degrees Celsius has 50 percent relative humidity in the atmosphere, the heat experienced by a person will be 41 degrees Celsius.”

However, when asked if any part of the state was experiencing an urban heat island phenomenon, the KSDMA member secretary denied it and said heat was not being trapped at any place in the state.

Also Read: 2 die of sunstroke; Kerala suspends Anganwadi activities as mercury rises

International collaborations

Heat Analysis – Kerala, India

Front cover of ‘Heat Analysis – Kerala, India’ report. (Supplied)

At the same time, many parts of the state are experiencing the effects of the climate crisis like increasing temperatures, less predictable weather patterns, sea level rise, floods, droughts, and other problems.

Meanwhile, the KSDMA is focused on creating adaptation and resilience-focused interventions that can help residents adapt to the changing climate.

Thus, it has made collaborations with institutions like the World Resources Institute (WRI), Woodwell Climate Research Centre (WCRC), Geo Hazards International (GHI), and Geo Hazards Society (GHS).

It is learnt that WRI is helping the KSDMA to prepare a Climate Hazard and Vulnerability Assessment report, which will help in understanding the interactions between climate hazards and socioeconomic factors.

In the case of WCRC, GHI, and GHS, the KSDMA collaborated with them to release a report titled “Heat Analysis – Kerala, India” in April this year.

The report analysed the heatwave conditions experienced by the state in 2023. It aimed to help the ongoing revision of the state’s Heat Action Plan to better understand and prepare for future heat extremes.

As per the report, March temperatures in the near future— by 2030 are projected to increase by 0.45-0.7 degrees Celcius in the state. Whereas, by mid-century— 2050, the increase would be around 1-1.55 degrees Celcius.

“In Kerala, summer has been arriving earlier and lasting longer. Considering the expanding summer season (February-May), we find that extreme temperatures will rise even more than the monthly averages,” read an excerpt from the report.

The report, which stressed the need to localise and customise climate risk assessments also observed that the impacts of climate change on the frequency and severity of physical hazards are putting many communities at risk.

Also Read: Health concerns surge as heat waves loom across India

Need for studies

As temperatures continue to rise, there is a growing demand for comprehensive studies to understand the underlying factors contributing to the unprecedented heatwave.

Such studies would not only shed light on the immediate causes but also inform long-term strategies to mitigate the effects of climate change and build resilience against future heatwaves.

One such study was on the spatial and temporal dynamics of the daily ultraviolet index (UVI) carried out for a period of 18 years (2004–2022) over Kerala.

One of the authors of the study, Pratheesh C Mammen of the KSDMA told South First that a higher variability of UVI characteristics was observed in the Kerala region, and more than 79 percent of the measurements fell into the categories of very high and extreme UVI values.

This suggests the need to implement appropriate measures to reduce health risks.

Exposure to ultraviolet rays (UVR) for a prolonged duration may result in acute and chronic health impacts on the skin, eyes, and immune system.

The commonly known acute effects of excessive UVR exposure are sunburn and tanning. In the long term, UVR may lead to skin ageing and the development of cataracts and other eye diseases accountable for a large proportion of visual impairment worldwide.

Need for regular UVI monitoring

According to Pratheesh, the crux of the study is that there is a need for regular monitoring of UVI, appropriate campaigns to disseminate information and precautions for prolonged UVI exposure to reduce the adverse health effects.

“Previously, Palakkad held the notorious distinction of recording exceptionally high temperatures. However, the current heatwave has taken a more widespread toll, with many areas across the state now experiencing soaring temperatures,” said Pratheesh.

He further added, “This transition underscores the urgent need for comprehensive measures to address the root causes of climate change and mitigate its impact on vulnerable populations.”

Meanwhile, as per sources, the Ultra Violet Radiometers, set up by the KSDMA to ensure continued monitoring of UV levels in the state with the help of UNDP are yet to generate data.

Also Read: How heatwaves and pollen grains are fuelling health issues

Heatwave in Kerala

According to the National Disaster Management Authority, the heatwave is a period of abnormally high temperatures. The extreme temperatures and resultant atmospheric conditions adversely affect people as they cause physiological stress, sometimes resulting in death.

Heatwave was announced for the first time by the India Meteorological Department in 2016. Since then, heatwaves have occurred in the state.

In 2019, taking note of the fact that heat-related disasters in the state are increasing, the state government notified heatwaves, sunstroke, and sunburn as State Specific Disasters.

On 3 May, KSDMA announced a yellow alert for heatwave in Palakkad and Kozhikode. It also put Thiruvananthapuram, Kollam, Alappuzha, Kottayam, Pathanamthitta, Ernakulam, Thrissur, Malappuram and Kasargod districts under heatwave alert.

Health impacts

KSDMA's daily maximum temperature map, 3 May

KSDMA’s daily maximum temperature map, 3 May. (Supplied)

According to state health department officials heat-related illnesses (HRI) are being reported in various parts of the state.

HRI includes health issues ranging from mild to severe—heat rash (prickly heat), heat oedema (swelling of hands, feet, and ankles), heat cramps (muscle cramps), heat tetany, heat syncope (fainting), heat exhaustion, and heat stroke.

Heat stress may also exacerbate chronic diseases like cardiovascular, respiratory, and kidney disease.

According to health officials, they had received advisories from the National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) to reduce the health impacts of extreme heat. They ensured preparedness and timely response to address such events.

“Other than issuing health advisories, we are undertaking HRI and death surveillance. We also investigate each suspected HRI death,” a health official said.

While there were reports of deaths attributed to sunstroke in the state, the KSDMA member secretary confirmed to South First that only two deaths were officially attributed to sunstroke. The deaths occurred in Palakkad on 2 May.

Also Read: Heat waves leading to increase in kidney damage

Other issues

Many regions were said to be grappling with a severe drinking water crisis. Depleted water levels in reservoirs and drying rivers have exacerbated the situation.

Farmers, in particular, face an uphill battle as crop losses mount due to inadequate irrigation and parched farmlands.

Pepper crop loss in Idukki due to heat

Pepper crop loss in Idukki due to heat. (Supplied)

Moreover, surge in electricity consumption, driven by need for cooling systems and other energy-intensive appliances, has pushed the state to the brink of a power crisis.

As demand soars amidst the blistering heat, authorities are racing against time to avert potential blackouts and ensure uninterrupted power supply to essential services and households.

In addition to the human toll, the scorching conditions have also taken a heavy toll on the state’s fauna, with animals struggling to cope with the heat.

Authorities have issued advisories urging residents to take precautionary measures to protect both themselves and vulnerable wildlife during this challenging period.

It was on 2 May that the chief minister chaired a high-level meeting that assessed the heatwave scenario in the state.

The meeting took several decisions including the closure of educational institutions until 6 May.

It was also decided to carry out audits in areas prone to fires like markets, buildings, waste collection and storage facilities, hospitals, and major government institutions.

(Edited by Sumavarsha Kandula)