I grew up close to the tropics, in a north Indian city. During harsh summers the incandescent sun – the largest nuclear fusion reactor in the entire solar system – is unforgiving, and heat waves bake the ground and all that’s on it. Amidst power cuts, a searing hot wind blows. The feeling cannot be described or forgotten: of being restless and trapped. There is no relief from that humidity, sweat and exhaustion. It is burning, always and everywhere. We try to live through the day, to survive, but many are not so lucky.
As climate change intensifies, such extreme heat waves will get worse. Globally, 16 of the 17 hottest years on record have been since 2000, and heat waves have taken a mounting toll. Heat wave deaths happen everywhere. In the US, they cause more deaths than all other natural disasters combined. Normally cool Europe lost 70,000 people in 2003 and snowy Russia lost 56,000 in 2010.
In developing countries, heat waves are even more insidious. The frail, the elderly, children, women, migrants, the sick and people without access to simple ways to cool themselves in summer are at greatest risk, and yet most of these deaths are preventable, even under the harshest of conditions. That is why governments of developing countries must plan now for the heat waves of the future, or face a mounting death toll among society’s most vulnerable people.