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Prolonged Heatwaves Pose A Greater Crisis For Himachal Pradesh And Uttarakhand

There were 14 heatwave days in Himachal Pradesh and five in Uttarakhand this season so far. Hill stations are recording high temperatures like some of the major cities of India.

Outlook
Heatwave in Himachal Pradesh leads to increase in forest fires. Photo: Outlook
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Rajesh Bali, a 41-year-old seasoned government clerk, has seen countless summers amidst the cool embrace of the Himalayas in Shimla. But, this year, he is feeling an unusual challenge to adapt to the unrelenting heatwave – a clear departure from the traditional balmy warmth of the hill station.

“My father had moved to Shimla from Una in the 1970s. We rented a house near Jakhu Hills. Eventually, we also bought this property. The cool mountain breeze was a great luxury. But, this summer, the sweltering heat seems to have ascended the cool hill station that no longer remains a refuge from the sultry sun of the plains,” Bali says.

Elders on morning walks on Shimla’s forest road could also be heard reminiscing past summers spent leisurely strolling along Mall Road in fresh cool air.

That aptly describes the changing conditions in the hills of Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand, where the soaring summer temperature forces the natives to undergo the worst experiences of life. Ceiling fans and cooling gadgets are in high demand in urban hill towns now – an indication of global warming and climate change.

The Indian Meteorological Department has issued a yellow alert for several districts in Himachal Pradesh, including Una, Bilaspur, Hamirpur, Chamba, Kangra, Kullu, Mandi, Solan, and Sirmaur. This alert indicates that temperatures are expected to continue rising, with no immediate relief in sight. The heat wave is predicted to persist for the next few days, with some areas potentially seeing temperatures increase by another 2-3 degrees Celsius.

“The tourists thronging the hills to escape the scorching heat of northern plains are also asking for fans in hotel rooms and air-conditioned accommodations,” informs Prince Kukreja, a Shimla hotelier at the Mall.

Manali, another popular destination in Himachal Pradesh, is witnessing massive traffic jams due to the tourist rush. The conditions in Mussoorie, Dehradun and Rishikesh are no different, recording high temperatures like some of the major cities in India.

Shimla recorded the season's highest temperature at 30.6°C, says Surender Paul, Director of the Meteorological Centre in Shimla. "However, there are some chances of rain after June 18, which could bring a welcome drop in temperatures and relief from the heatwave," he adds.

The last heatwave record for Himachal was in 2007 when Una recorded a maximum temperature of 42.1°C but last Wednesday, the temperature exceeded 43°C.

Dr Suresh C Attri, Chief Scientist at the Himachal government’s Department of Environment and Climate Change, attributes the reason for changing weather patterns in the mountains to the changing climate which has significantly impacted the Himalayas. This is precisely the cause of frequent and severe heatwaves. The region, known for its typically cooler climate, has seen rising temperatures over the years, exacerbating the effects of heat waves, he says.

With no rains for the past 10-12 days, Shimla‘s maximum temperature has been bordering between 30 and 31 degrees Celsius, and 4.5 degrees Celsius above normal for four consecutive days. Other parts of the state like Mandi, Sundernagar, Una, Hamirpur, Dharamshala and Solan have also shown unusually high temperatures up to 43-44 degrees Celsius last week.

For instance, Una and Neri in Hamirpur recorded unprecedented temperatures of 46.0 and 46.3 degrees Celsius, respectively, marking the highest ever temperature recorded in the state’s history. Dharamsala saw temperatures hit 38.3 degrees Celsius, breaking its previous record set in 1988, while Shimla reached 31.7 degrees, close to its record from 2012.

Ramesh Chauhan, a professor of Journalism and Mass Communication at APG Shimla University, recalls, “In the earlier days, 30-31 degree temperature was the rarest thing in Shimla. It used to rain instantly if the town ever recorded a high temperature. But, now it’s almost 15 days and there are no rains to cool the hills.”

As per IMD data, there were 14 heatwave days in Himachal Pradesh this season until June 10. Uttarakhand observed five days of heatwave.

Dr Attri notes, “In the Himalayas, these heatwaves are exacerbated by the region's unique geography and climate. The reduction in snow cover and glaciers due to warming is particularly concerning as it not only contributes to higher temperatures but also impacts water availability downstream.” Additionally, he says, “The rapid urbanisation and deforestation in the region reduce the natural cooling effects of forests and increase the urban heat island effect.”

The impacts of these heatwaves are profound. They affect agriculture by reducing crop yields and increasing water demand. Health risks also rise, particularly for vulnerable populations. Dr Attri adds, as per his studies, that while climate change is indeed a global phenomenon requiring international cooperation, local and regional mitigation activities are crucial to address its impacts effectively.

Even in Uttarakhand, the conditions are worrying. The heatwave conditions have not only impacted the lives of the people but also led to massive forest fires, water scarcity and breathing problems due to traffic congestion and vehicular emissions.

Anoop Nautiyal, a social activist and climate change activist, says that apart from global and regional factors, heat waves are occurring more often and getting stronger because of multiple factors in Dehradun. The city is expanding quickly, replacing trees and green areas with buildings and roads.

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“There's less natural shade and evaporation to cool things down naturally making urban areas hotter. The relentless focus of the state government and policymakers on infrastructure projects and concretization has come at the enormous cost of increased temperatures,” he says.

Moreover, Dehradun's geography, shaped like a bowl, traps heat in the Doon Valley. We have seen this phenomenon manifest itself in the form of higher pollution levels in the Doon Valley and the cruel summer of 2024, the valley is likely playing a supporting role in the increased heat and humidity in Dehradun and surrounding areas, he adds.

Last Wednesday, Dehradun recorded a maximum temperature of 43 degrees Celsius, surpassing the norm by 7 degrees and matching the highest-ever record of 2012.

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In all these hill towns, local factors like massive constructions, mushrooming of hotels erasing forest cover and an influx of tourists have also taken away the refreshing cool charm of the hill stations. Sometimes, it is difficult to even enter the town and find a parking spot. The vehicles spill over on the road.

Ghulam Rashid, 52, a Kashmiri porter at Shimla, says “I came to Shimla at the age of 24. In my period, this is the first time that I have experienced so much heat during day time. Shimla was never like this. But, now it is said, due to population increase, tourists influx and cutting of forests, the situation is turning bad.”

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Shimla is also facing an acute water crisis due to the drying-up of the water sources at four out of six sources supplying water to the town. The Shimla Jal Prabandhan Nigam (SJPN) Ltd has now introduced water rationing in the town, supplying water on the third day.

Against daily needs of 44 to 46 MLD of water, the hill station’s water availability is just 31.5 MLD as of Monday. It had fallen to 10.97 MLD on May 15. Residents are worried that the current situation will lead to a 2018-like crisis when Shimla went without water for nine days as a result of the drying up of the water sources and less snow on the mountains feeding the rivers.

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