Record-breaking heat wave gripping India and Pakistan threatens crops, leaves millions sweltering

A spring heat wave is scorching parts of India and Pakistan, with record-breaking April temperatures of 120 degrees Fahrenheit forecast along the border of the two countries in the coming days. The extreme heat threatens the health of millions of people as well as the harvest of wheat at a time when climate change and the war in Ukraine have sparked a global food crisis.

The Indian Meteorological Department warned this week that a heat dome, similar to the one that sent temperatures soaring over the Pacific Northwest last year, had formed over the region. Millions of people in the areas of India and Pakistan where temperatures have remained in the triple digits are now at risk of illness and death from the heat.

“It’s become impossible to work after 10 o’clock in the morning,” Sunil Das, who works as a rickshaw puller on the outskirts of Delhi, told Quartz India.

A man rides his bicycle in New Delhi on Tuesday
A man riding his bicycle in New Delhi on Tuesday. (Anushree Fadnavis/Reuters)

Following an exceptionally dry month of March, which also set a new temperature record, cities and towns across India’s wheat-growing region have been reporting temperatures over 100 degrees Fahrenheit this week. When April arrived, so did the heat wave, putting the wheat harvest at risk.

“The heat spell occurred very fast and also matured the crop at a faster pace, which shriveled the grain size. This also resulted in a drop in yield,” JDS Gill, the agriculture information officer in the state of Punjab, told India Today.

Meteorologists predicted that the temperature average for April would likely fall across large portions of India and Pakistan. Such severe heat waves aren’t normally registered in the region until May and June, but scientists have long warned that because of climate change they will become more common earlier and later in the coming decades.

Workers at the government grain market in Chandigarh, India
Workers at the government grain market in Chandigarh, India. (Ravi Kumar/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

On Tuesday, the temperature hit 116°F in the city of Dadu, Pakistan, tying a record for the warmest day in the Northern Hemisphere on that date. Temperatures are expected to keep rising this week.

The formation of a heat dome over India, Nepal and the Himalayas also has potentially worrisome long-term consequences, according to climate researchers. The consensus among scientists is that climate change has sped up the melting of glacier ice in the Himalayas. That's significant because after Antarctica and the Arctic, the region holds the world’s third-largest amount of glacial ice. Its loss would dramatically impact the supply of water to people in the region.

Drought worsened by climate change and Russia's ongoing war in Ukraine have brought the Horn of Africa to the brink of famine. Many African nations import wheat from Ukraine, but the conflict has halted those shipments. Earlier this month, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi assured President Biden that India was “ready to supply food stock to the world,” but that pronouncement came just as the current heat wave was beginning to take hold.

“[Wheat] prices will be driven up, and if you look at what is happening in Ukraine, with many countries relying on wheat from India to compensate, the impact will be felt well beyond India,” Harjeet Singh, an adviser with Climate Action Network International, told NBC News.

While the overall toll on the wheat harvest remains unclear, the next few days in India and Pakistan will provide a more immediate trial run for how human beings will cope with a hotter future. For now, schools have been closed in several cities in India, workers have been advised to avoid exposure to the sun and the governments of both countries have warned of blackouts as the demand for electricity is expected to surge.