An uneasy calm quietly envelops Punalur, an eastern border town in Kerala’s southern Kollam district, as the clock goes past 10.30 am.
Shops and other commercial establishments, which open early, down their shutters as the mercury rises. The town almost resembles a day of hartal, much familiar to the state.
The hartal, however, is self-imposed to escape the blazing sun. It remains like a ghost town — even the otherwise ubiquitous crows are rarely seen — till late evening, when the easterlies bring respite from the simmering heat.
Venturing outdoors between 10.30 am and 6 pm has become difficult and risky, says activist Abhish K Bose, who like many others, prefers to stay indoors during the day.
Punalur has become the hottest locality in Kerala ever since the beginning of March. The mercury hovers around the 45.5 degrees Celsius-mark, slowing down life stupefied by hot and humid conditions.
The cruellest month
Still, Punalur is regularly reporting cases of sunburns. The Kerala Health Department has issued an advisory, asking people across the state to remain indoors during daytime.
“Punalur has been the hottest locality in Kerala for over a decade. The heat level is increasing alarmingly in summers,” Bose tells South First.
“The summer’s impact is severe this year, and by 9 am, the town seems like a furnace. Water scarcity is extreme in the eastern region of Kollam. The blazing weather has almost paralysed normal life,” adds Bose.
Retired school teacher K Lalitha Kumari says harsh summers have become the norm in Punalur. She seldom leaves home during the day.
The situation is almost similar in the Palakkad district, the second-most hottest place in Kerala.
Scarcity of potable water is high in Palakkad city and its neighbouring areas, specifically Kanjikode, Eruthempathy, Kozhinjampara and Vandithavalam.
The Bharathapuzha river, the lifeline of Palakkad, has been reduced to a trickle causing extreme drinking water scarcity in Ottapalam and Shoranur towns.
With climate change and several human-made factors contributing significantly to the situation, Kerala is now experiencing above-normal heat conditions. Heat islands add to the woes of cities.
Contrary to previous years, the temperature has risen more than 3˚C above the normal. In many areas like Kasaragod, Vellanikkara and Vatakara, the mercury has crossed the 40˚C-mark.
Looming power crisis
The India Meteorological Department (IMD) has said that the heat wave conditions will prevail in the state till the onset of the southeast monsoon by May-end or early June.
The scarce summer rains have failed to cool the atmosphere across the state. Cases of dehydration are rampant, and the Kerala State Disaster Management Authority has also warned people against venturing outdoors during days.
Considering the depleting water levels in the reservoirs, the authorities are also worried over the worsening power situation in the state. Power consumption in the state has breached all previous records this summer.
The daily power consumption crossed 9.56 crore units across the state on Friday, 21 April. even as the water levels in the hydroelectrical projects are depleting at an alarming rate.
Power demand at night is also at a record high, with people continuously using fans and air-conditioners.
Speaking to South First, Power Minister K Krishnankutty said the power situation in the state has assumed crisis proportions. The government is struggling hard to avoid loadshedding and power cuts.
He urged the consumers to reduce power consumption during the peak hours between 6 pm and 11 pm.
Also read: Cold water not ideal to quench summer thirst
Farmers bear the brunt
Farmers and farmhands have rescheduled their working hours to avoid direct exposure to the sun. People start agricultural activities early in the morning and end them by around 9 am.
The ultraviolet (UV) index across the state at 10.30 am on Saturday, 22 April, was extreme. Except Thiruvananthapuram, all other places had an UV index of 12. In Thiruvananthapuram, the UV index was 11.
A UV index above 11 is considered extreme, and exposure to such condition will lead to sunburns and even sunstrokes.
“We start working by 4 am despite proper lighting and risking reptiles and animals,” says K Jayadevan, a farmer in Palakkad’s Elavanchery.
“Farmhands are getting exhausted faster, and nobody works beyond 9 am. The traditional methods of beating the heat are failing miserably this time,” he added.
Cases of sunburns and dehydration are widely reported from the farming community in Nenmara, Malampuzha, Chittoor and Kozhinjampara.
Amidst the escalating water crisis, irrigation needs remain unaddressed in most places, including in Palakkad and Kuttanad, the state’s rice bowls.
The hot weather has also started causing discomfort to the state’s livestock.
Police cover for water sources
Till a few years ago, Kerala was water-rich with its 44 major rivers, numerous streams and vast expanses of backwaters. Now, most rivers, rivulets, ponds, dams and canals have either dried or are drying up.
In Palakkad’s Chittur taluk, the state water authority has ensured round-the-clock police protection for 15 check-dams and regulators in the Bharathapuzha basin to avoid water theft by brick kilns and agricultural plantations.
Except for the famous hill station of Munnar, where the temperature is now at about 26˚C, the whole of Kerala is wilting in the face of relatively high humidity and rising mercury.
Even hill stations in the Wayanad district are reeling under the simmering hot conditions.
The extremely hot summer also have sparked fears of possible massive forest fires, apart from fire accidents at markets, buildings and dumping yards.
Though no immediate remedial measures are available to fight the situation, KSDMA has asked the Department of Local Self-Governments to submit a detailed project to mitigate the impact of rising heat.
It has recommended “cool roofs” and various other long-term community-based structural and non-structural heat-risk reduction projects.
Cool roofing in the offing
KSDMA member secretary Sekhar L Kuriakose told South First that the state government has allowed the authority to utilise State Disaster Mitigation Funds for medium- to long-term heat-risk reduction measures.
The projects include adopting a “cool roof” policy — roofs chiefly coated with reflective paints — that reflect sunlight and absorb less heat, reducing indoor temperatures considerably.
Incidentally, Telangana is the first state in the country to have a cool-roof policy.
Experts say “cool roofs” reflect sunlight and heat unlike the conventional dark roofs that absorb heat.
Besides adopting cool roofs, demolishing unwanted structures has also been suggested, along with other medium- to long-term mitigation steps to lessen the urban heat island effect.
The state had earlier decided to create and fund Thaneer Pandals (sheds providing drinking water) in places of public congregation to combat rising heat.
Meanwhile, Tropical Institute of Ecological Science director Dr Punnen Kurian held global warming responsible for the soaring temperatures.
Adding that there is no short-term solution for the problem, he said Kerala requires more greenery.
According to him, heat is an emerging reality, and only long-term mitigation measures can help the state survive.
He said that afforestation must be initiated along with effecting drastic changes in construction activities.