Regions of Tamil Nadu witnessed record-breaking temperatures in August, underscoring need to widely disseminate its Heat Action Plan.
(Editor’s note: The earlier version of this report inadvertently stated that Tamil Nadu does not have a Heat Action Plan. The state has a plan, but it is not effectively implemented. The article has been updated accordingly. The error is regretted.)
Palayamkottai, a weather station in Tirunelveli, recorded the region as the hottest in Tamil Nadu in August 2023.
The temperature in the region, which had never crossed 40°C in August, went past 40 on 12 days this year. The second-highest temperature in August at Palayamkottai was 39.5°C — recorded way back on 13 August, 1976, as per the data accessed from the Regional Meteorological Centre.
Thoothukudi Port, which never touched 40°C in August, broke the record twice this year. Looking back, the region touched 40°C only during the peak summer months of May and June, and that too just three times: Twice in May 1980, and once in June 2014.
Chennai’s Meenambakkam station recorded 39°C on 7 August, the third-hottest day ever for the month.
This is the rarest of rare scenarios for Tamil Nadu in August, a month which usually sees partly cloudy skies that provide respite to citizens after the sweltering summer heat from March to July.
The scenario, quite unusual for the month of August, has been attributed to the poor Southwest Monsoon.
It is well known that wind plays a pivotal role in determining temperature, and unfortunately, the feeble westerly winds of August contributed to soaring temperatures not just in Tamil Nadu, but also in Kerala and Andhra Pradesh.
“Many stations in Kerala and Andhra reported departures of three to four degrees above the usual, a highly abnormal occurrence,” P Senthamarai Kannan, Scientist-E, Weather Forecasting Unit, Regional Meteorological Centre, Chennai, told South First.
The interior districts of Tamil Nadu suffered from a lack of wind penetration, a factor that typically results in warmer temperatures in east coast stations like Ramanathapuram. Nevertheless, it was perplexing to witness districts such as Palayamkottai and Madurai record higher temperatures, defying the norm for August, Kannan added.
A feeble Southwest Monsoon in August left Kerala parched with a staggering 87 percent below-normal rainfall. “The monsoon current, which usually brings down the temperatures with rains, was weak this season,” he said.
The long break in the monsoon clubbed with climate change is the root cause for the unusual weather event in August. However, it is not a one-off scenario peculiar to Tamil Nadu. India recorded 280 days of heat waves across 16 states in 2022 — the most ever in a decade — as per a report by the Centre for Science and Environment.
“Climate change has warmed more than 1.2°C globally. Every weather event has some impact of global warming on it. The key question is, whether other factors such as El Nino and monsoon add to global warming or not,” Raghu Murtugudde, Visiting Professor, IIT Bombay, and Emeritus Professor, University of Maryland, told South First.
A macro look into the scenario shows that it is indeed not a local situation, but a global one. The three-month June-August 2023 season was the warmest on record globally — by a large margin, according to a report by Climate Central published on 7 September.
Countries with the lowest historical emissions experienced three to four times higher seasonal temperatures this June-August than G-20 countries (the world’s largest economies), the report stated.
On each day in June-August, between 1.5 and 4.2 billion people felt a very strong influence of climate change, Climate Central said.
“It’s still not being talked about widely, but the rise in humidity due to global warming and higher evaporation and moisture in the atmosphere is happening at a faster pace. Coastal areas such as Chennai will be vulnerable to higher humid heat, as well as erratic rains, said Gunjan Jain, Engagement Lead, Climate Trends, a research-based consulting and capacity-building initiative that aims to bring greater focus on issues of environment, climate change and sustainable development.
Rising temperatures clubbed with humidity, affect human survivability in Tamil Nadu. And workers who labour outdoors bear the brunt of heat stress.
R Jagan, a 33-year-old worker in Tirunelveli had to work in a construction site in the scorching heat. “If I don’t show up, I lose the day’s income. What other option do I have?” he questioned.
Jagan had intense episodes of migraine and heat strokes in August, something he would usually experience in the peak summer months of April and May.
“I had requested my employer to change the timings. I would be happy to work from as early as 6 am in the morning if it means avoiding the afternoon heat,” Jagan told South First.
The negative effects of heat waves affect not just the labour well-being but also the economy. Absenteeism and declined productivity due to heat stress reduce the aggregate national output in the Indian Manufacturing Sector, according to a research paper published at The University of Chicago Press Journals in 2021.
Between 1992 and 2015, heat waves caused 24,223 deaths across the country, according to data from the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA).
As the frequency of heat waves increases, every Indian state needs to have a well-drafted policy — a Heat Action Plan — to respond to the harmful effects.
Heat Action Plans provide region-specific strategies to reduce heatwave deaths to zero and ensure the implementation of infrastructural changes such as increasing green cover and opting for heat-resilient buildings.
For example, changing the work timings for outdoor workers, providing cool roofs for the residences of slum-dwellers and integrating heat action plans with developmental measures are some of the vital points of the Karnataka Heat Wave Action Plan.
Odisha’s 2022 state Heat Action Plan has short, medium and long-term goals to deal with heat stress. Establishing early warning and communication systems, developing inter-agency response plans and public awareness and outreach are a few strategies from the Odisha plan.
Prone to heat stress, the Tamil Nadu government, too, needs a functional Heat Action Plan.
Tamil Nadu has a Heat Wave Action Plan prepared by the Commissionerate of Revenue Administration and Disaster Management in 2019. Unfortunately, the plan mostly remains on paper.
The state’s Heat Wave Action Plan has specific directions for citizens and outdoor workers to follow during heat waves. It also has chalked out long-term strategies for various departments, such as the State Highways, Rural Development, and civic bodies, to follow during a heat wave.
Every year, when heat waves occur, the district administrations issue a list of advisories to be followed. A district collector, seeking anonymity, told South First that the advisories were never based on Tamil Nadu’s 2019 plan.
“We received no directions from the Disaster Management Department to follow the plan. We issue general guidelines during a heatwave,” the collector said, adding, “There is no statutory plan followed by all the line departments.”
A State Highways Department official, whom South First spoke to, was also oblivious to the existence of the plan.
“The current plan in Tamil Nadu has information about what a heat wave is, but not enough clarity about the mitigation measures and information such as the nearest public health centre and district-level helpline numbers,” Chennai resident Shruti Suresh said.