Heat Wave Crisis: Developing Nations Bear the Brunt

Photo by Rashed Kabir

In April 2024, extreme heat hit South and Southeast Asia, affecting nations like India, the Philippines, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Myanmar. These heat waves severely impacted some of the world’s most densely populated regions, taking a heavy toll on health, the economy, and education.

In May and June, tens of millions of people faced dangerous heat. India had its longest heat wave ever, starting in mid-May. In northern India, temperatures rose above 45 degrees Celsius (113 degrees Fahrenheit), with some areas exceeding 50 degrees Celsius (122 Fahrenheit). Official reports in May mentioned 56 heat-related deaths between March and May, but the real number is probably higher because rural deaths often aren’t reported.

Myanmar has faced unprecedented high temperatures in several townships, including Magway, Mandalay, Sagaing, and Bago divisions. Cambodia has recently experienced its highest temperatures in 170 years, reaching up to 43 degrees Celsius (109 Fahrenheit). In northern Thailand, temperatures soared above 44 degrees Celsius (111 Fahrenheit), while Bangkok saw temperatures exceeding 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit). In 2024, Thailand’s summer, which typically runs from late February to late May, was 1–2 degrees Celsius hotter than the previous year, with rainfall below average. Through May 10, 2024, at least 61 people in Thailand died from heatstroke, compared to 37 deaths throughout the entire previous year.

The intense heat has caused disruptions in education and labor productivity. In the Philippines, authorities instructed millions of students to stay home by suspending in-person classes for two days. The Department of Education directed more than 47,000 public schools to shift to online lessons.

Extreme heat is influenced by both local and global factors. Locally, reduced vegetation and soil moisture contribute to higher temperatures. Urban areas, with their concrete and asphalt surfaces, retain heat, creating what is known as the urban heat island effect. Additionally, wind patterns and cloud cover play roles in local temperature variations.

Globally, El Niño events and climate change amplify extreme heat occurrences. El Niño events have released additional heat into the atmosphere since May 2023, exacerbating global warming. Consequently, regions like South and Southeast Asia experience more frequent, prolonged, and intense heat waves.

El Niño is a weather phenomenon characterized by unusually warm sea surface temperatures in the central and eastern tropical Pacific Ocean. It occurs irregularly every few years and can affect global weather patterns. During El Niño, increased ocean temperatures lead to changes in atmospheric circulation, which can cause heavy rainfall in some regions and droughts in others. It also influences the jet stream, altering storm patterns worldwide.

In South and Southeast Asia, El Niño often correlates with hotter and drier conditions, worsening heat waves and extending dry periods. These conditions pose severe challenges for agriculture, leading to reduced crop yields and increased wildfire risks.

El Niño and La Niña are integral to the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle, a natural phenomenon causing significant year-to-year climate variations on Earth.

However, human-induced climate change is now affecting this cycle. Studies indicate that that factor is increasing the occurrence and intensity of severe El Niño events, multiplying their impacts such as droughts, floods, heat waves, and altered hurricane patterns.

Climate models predict that extreme El Niño events could occur approximately every 10 years instead of every 20 due to global warming. This heightened frequency could result in more frequent and severe weather-related disasters globally.

Climate change presents a significant challenge for Global South countries due to their limited resources and capacity to respond effectively. These nations heavily rely on agriculture as a vital economic pillar, making them particularly vulnerable to the erratic weather patterns associated with climate change. Consequently, they often experience crop failures, food insecurity, and heightened poverty levels.

Economically, the impact is substantial. Projections from the World Bank indicate that by 2050, over 140 million people in regions like Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Latin America may be internally displaced due to factors exacerbated by climate change such as water scarcity and reduced agricultural productivity.

Socially, climate change worsens existing inequalities within these countries. The poorest populations, despite contributing minimally to global greenhouse gas emissions, bear the brunt of climate-related disasters such as floods and droughts. This exacerbates health issues, displaces communities, and sparks competition over essential resources like water and land. Moreover, inadequate healthcare infrastructure further complicates matters, as these countries struggle to manage the increased burden of climate-related illnesses.

Heat waves pose a serious threat to low-income communities, worsening existing health and economic disparities. These neighborhoods often lack adequate infrastructure to handle extreme temperatures, such as poorly insulated homes and limited access to cooling options. The urban heat island effect further exacerbates the problem, making urban areas hotter than surrounding rural regions due to human activities. As a result, cooling costs rise, putting financial strain on many low-income families during heat waves.

The health impacts on these communities are significant, with more hospitalizations due to heat-related illnesses like dehydration, heat exhaustion, and potentially fatal heatstroke. Limited health care access complicates timely treatment during heat emergencies. Moreover, existing health conditions prevalent in these areas, such as respiratory and heart diseases, worsen under extreme heat.

Economically, heat waves disrupt the livelihoods of low-income workers who rely on outdoor jobs or work in non-climate-controlled environments. Lost work hours due to illness or caregiving responsibilities contribute to financial instability.

Heat waves present significant risks to vulnerable populations in third-world countries, particularly women, the elderly, and children, exacerbating their health and socioeconomic challenges. Women, often engaged in agricultural labor, face heightened susceptibility to heat-related illnesses due to limited health care access and outdoor work. The elderly, with age-related health issues and reduced mobility, are at increased risk of heat stress complications, compounded by insufficient cooling infrastructure. Prolonged heat waves can lead to school closures and hinder educational opportunities, further impacting the development and future prospects of children in these regions.

While developed nations revel in the comforts of modern life, third-world countries face the harsh realities of escalating climate change and severe heat waves. These communities grapple with extreme temperatures that disrupt daily routines, endanger health, and undermine economic stability. The unequal distribution of resources starkly illustrates that as global temperatures increase, the consequences disproportionately affect those with limited resources and infrastructure to cope and adapt.

This article was produced by Globetrotter.

Pranjal Pandey, a journalist and editor located in Delhi, has edited seven books covering a range of issues available at LeftWord. You can explore his journalistic contributions on NewsClick.in.