With temperatures reaching nearly 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit), India and Pakistan are seeing the hottest heat waves in history. People stop working during the hottest hours of the day and schoolchildren are sent home hours early. Cattle are dying from heat exhaustion and dehydrated birds are falling from the sky. (Also read: Do you have diabetes? Tips to fight heatwave and avoid complications)
“It’s really a sort of unbearable heat. During the daytime, many people are absent from the roads. It’s quite excruciating,” said Murali Krishnan, a DW correspondent usually based in New Delhi.
When we spoke, Krishnan was in Gujarat, one of the hottest parts of the country, and he had just ducked into an air-conditioned shop to take the call. “I only came out here to find out how bad it was for people and it is truly, truly bad,” he said.
Drink water before you get thirsty
The most important thing you can do to stay safe in a heat wave is drink water, said Indian heat expert Abhiyant Tiwari. Drink water regularly, even when you aren’t thirsty, says Tiwari. Cool drinks, such as water and coconut water, are better than hot drinks.
“Don’t wait until you get thirsty,” Tiwari told DW. “Thirst during summer is a sign of dehydration. Drink before you get thirsty.”
Other experts, such as Catherine Ling, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Nursing, say most drinks are fine. Just avoid drinks that contain caffeine, which will dehydrate you.
It’s also a good idea to avoid alcohol.
Stay indoors if possible
Then, stay indoors. That’s another thing you can do to stay safe in the smoldering heat. And rest during the hottest hours of the day.
That’s what many people are doing in India, said our correspondent Murali Krishnan.
Students who would usually stay in school until 4 pm are being released at 1 pm in Gujarat. “People are trying to keep themselves cool by not going out too often. Many are confined indoors,” he said.
But that’s not possible for everyone: The heat is hitting laborers hardest, said Krishnan.
“In a country like India, where there are huge swathes of poor people, especially [people working in jobs like] construction, those people have really had to bear the brunt of the heat wave because they have to work. They have to earn money to keep their home fires burning,” Krishnan said.
Seek shade and cover your head in the heat
In Pakistan’s Jacobabad district, Parveen Sikander can’t afford to stop working. Sikander is an agricultural laborer, who earns on a daily wage basis. If Sikander misses work in the crop fields, she doesn’t get paid.
“My 14-year-old son, who works alongside me pulling a donkey cart to transport crops, was hit by a severe heat stroke and fainted last weekend,” Sikander told DW.
The temperature had reached 51 degrees Celsius in Jacobabad. Sikander says she and other field workers feel “vulnerable” and that they soak their clothes to avoid the heat.
“This season we feel we are living in hell,” said Sikander. “It wasn’t this hot when I was a child.”
Tiwari advises to wear a head covering if you have to go out or work outdoors. Ling says field workers should also seek shade if possible.
Keep the air moving
Health experts advise older people to stay in air conditioned rooms if they can.
But air conditioning is scarce in India — poor people can’t afford the machines and the country faces regular power cuts, which can last up to three hours at a time.
Even when there is air conditioning, says Krishnan, it often fails. Barring the power cuts, the devices break down at a higher rate than normal when it’s very hot.
Cooling buildings without air conditioning
Tiwari says Indians in rural areas still use traditional techniques, like placing cow patties on their rooftops, to keep their homes cool. In the cities, meanwhile, some people are installing “cool roofs” that are light in color and absorb less heat than darker roofs.
Radhika Khosla, a professor and expert on the future of cooling at the University of Oxford, said you can place pots of water on a roof to encourage evaporative cooling.
You can also try covering your windows to prevent the sun from entering rooms and use fans to keep air circulating. Cold cloths on wrists, the head and neck can also help ward off some of the heat.
Precautions may be working
Heat waves are common in India and Pakistan — as they are in many other part so the world — but this year’s hot spell has been remarkable.
It’s been the hottest heat wave in recent history for India and Pakistan and it started two months earlier than usual, in March.
That’s probably due to climate change, said Tiwari, but “we haven’t seen people getting rushed to hospital like we saw in the 2015 heat wave in India and Pakistan or the 2010 heat wave in Ahmedabad.”
Those were “very disturbing” events, said Tiwari: Hospitals were overrun and many people died.
No official mortality counts have been released for the current heat wave, but the numbers that have emerged are smaller than those for 2015 and 2010 when over 3,000 and 1,300 people died, respectively. This year, only around 90 people have died.
Tiwari said it’s unclear why that is the case, and that the heat wave isn’t over yet, but he said it could be that public information campaigns are starting to work and that people are learning how to protect themselves.
Edited by: Zulfikar Abbany