What it's like living through a 121 degree day

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Ansar Khan, 40, whose six-month-old daughter died on late May. He blames the extreme heat.
Diaa Hadid/NPR

If you ask Ansar Khan, he will tell you that the heat killed his baby daughter Ina. She didn’t wake up from her afternoon nap in late May, on the dusty scrap of land she knew as home, with only a blue plastic sheet to shade her.

It was the hottest day he’d ever experienced, and a hot wind blew. It was 121 degrees in New Delhi that day.

“She was crying a bit, so we gave her milk and we all napped. When we woke up, we tried waking her up,” Khan tells NPR. “It was all over in half an hour.”

Heatwaves have been roiling swaths of South Asia since April, including southern Pakistan, where temperatures went over 125 degrees. In New Delhi, one of the world’s largest cities, with a population of over 30 million people, that 121-degree day was the peak.

Inequality in the face of heat

But the heatwave did not impact residents equally. Consider laborers like Ishtiyaq, 24, in the working-class Mina Bazaar in New Delhi. A megaphone rigged to his stall blares: “Drink it cold! Drink it sweet!” It’s an advertisement for lassi, a cooling yogurt drink. Men and women downed cups for about 10 cents apiece on a recent day, when the temperature was 100 degrees.

Ishtiyaq looks busy — but he says he’s in a slump. He expects he’ll only make $7 profit for the day’s work. “People stay home when it’s hot,” he shrugs. Ishtiyaq, who only has one name, says he doesn’t have that choice. He supports his wife, his kids, his parents. If he doesn’t work, there’s no money.

“What can I say brother? The poor must endure it all.”

-“This is what Indian vulnerability looks like,” says Aditya Valiathan Pillai, who studies policy responses to extreme heat at the New Delhi-based thinktank Sustainable Futures Collaborative. “You have 75% of India's working population, well over 350 million people who are directly heat exposed because of their jobs,” he says, citing World Bank data.

Pillai says it’s not just outdoor workers. It includes people who live in slums -- where it’s often hotter than other parts of the city, because those areas typically lack shade-giving trees, and homes are built with materials that can make spaces hotter, like aluminum roofs or even thick plastic. Like the Sanjay Camp, where tiny, jumbly homes huddle near New Delhi’s leafy diplomatic quarter.

A desperate search for water

There’s also no running water in Sanjay Camp. Men, women and kids crowd around a water pump, buckets and plastic tankers at the ready. Resident Ram Babu keeps order. One women in the crowd says she’s come from a nearby slum. “We don’t get much water near where we live, so I come here,” she says. She asks not to use her name because she’s not meant to be taking water allocated to Sanjay Camp. “I’m trying my luck,” she laughs.

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Residents gather around a water pump in Sanjay Camp. The settlement doesn't have running water, and relies on this water pump. Government water tankers also come by. And yet residents say it's not enough. On one of the hottest days this year, a journalist captured footage of residents chasing a water tank, with men leaping onto the moving vehicle and women banging the sides.
Diaa Hadid/NPR

Residents say government water tankers also come three times a day to shore up supplies. On New Delhi’s hottest days, one journalist filmed residents chasing one of those government tankers. Men clambered atop the moving vehicle. Women banged on the sides and threw up hoses hoping to drain off water for their buckets and water tankers.

And yet, a 40-minute drive away, to a homeless shelter for women and children, having a reliable water pump or a government water tanker is a dream. “We fight over water here,” says one resident. “There’s no water to drink. To wash. To cool down. Nothing.”

But they’re luckier than other unhoused families. At least, they have somewhere relatively safe to sleep. A few dozen mothers and children get to sleep here, in a large room. One little girl points to the beds crammed inside. “Three kids sleep in that bed,” she says. “And in that one, and in that one.” Two fans sluggishly push around the air. “It’s boiling here,” she whispers.

Children facing the spectre of death

Taranum, who only has one name and guesses her age at 34, sleeps here with her three daughters. She was recently diagnosed with typhoid, an illness more prevalent during heatwaves when water contaminates more easily. She said at the peak of her illness, she felt like she would die. She’s terrified at the thought.

“I can’t die,” she says. “We are homeless. Who will take care of my daughters?” She shakes her head: “But I can’t complain. Other people have it harder. Two babies died in this heat.”

One of the babies was two days old.

Her mother’s name is Salma, and she lives under a tree near the shelter — there’s no space for her inside. On a shaky phone line arranged by a friend, she tells NPR that she pushed together a lean-to near her tree where she gave birth. She says her baby was healthy and began breastfeeding right away. But two days later, the infant died. She didn’t have a name.

Salma says the only shade she could give her baby — and her other children — was a plastic blue sheet that she pitched over them.

Ina Khan died too, at around the same time. She too, lived near the shelter, shaded by a wall. Ansar Khan is sure the heat caused her death, but there’s no way of proving that now.

But experts and studies say babies are particularly vulnerable to extreme heat. Their small bodies can easily heat up. They can’t regulate their temperatures well –- they don’t sweat much, for starters. They easily dehydrate. And so they’re more likely to die.

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Chandrika Mahato, who guesses he is in his 70s, sits with his grandchildren on the main road of the Sanjay Camp informal settlement in central New Delhi. Mahato fixes bicycles for a living and sleeps on a raised platform above his hole-in-the-wall shop. To cool down during the heatwave, he says he tries to bathe, if there’s enough water, and turns on his fan, if there’s electricity — there are frequent blackouts here.
Diaa Hadid/NPR

“You can imagine how heat may have played a role in these cases,” says Harleen Marwah, pediatric resident physician at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and an advocate of raising awareness of the dangers of extreme heat in children. “We know that the burden of extreme heat is not shared equally. And already, vulnerable populations tend to shoulder that burden even more.”

Pillai, who studies policy responses to extreme heat, says government institutions haven’t yet figured out a way to collect robust data around heat. “And that’s very simply because [of] this massive black hole we have in terms of understanding heat wave deaths and heat illnesses. I can't even tell you whether hundreds of people have died or thousands of people have died. I can’t even put an order of magnitude to it.”

That’s because India isn’t ready for climate change-induced heatwaves that are pummeling this region, Pillai says. The infrastructure isn’t in place, including data gathering, even as these heatwaves are likely to occur more often, last longer and be more extreme.

“What we're seeing today is nowhere close to how bad it's going to get in the next ten, 15 years,” says Pillai. In fact, some areas of India may become the first places on earth to be exposed to heatwaves so extreme that humans will not be able to survive them without air conditioning or other types of cooling, according to a 2020 study by the consulting group McKinsey.

So far, local and foreign media report that dozens of people have died in India because of the heat but that is likely a vast undercount. The dead included 33 poll workers in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, where citizens were casting their vote in the last stage of India’s six-week elections that ended on June 4.

The toll does not include Ina Khan, 6 months old.

Khan says when he took her to the hospital, no one asked him why she might have died. He says hospital officials simply confirmed Ina was dead, then handed her back for burial.

Her only known cause of death was scrawled on the receipt of her $7 burial at the local Muslim cemetery. It said, “fever.”

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