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South Asia's heat wave leaves a billion people in danger of related health problems

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Summer arrived early in South Asia, way too early. Temperatures topped 120 degrees Fahrenheit in some areas over the weekend. This brutal heat wave is exactly what scientists predict for countries on the front lines of climate change. From sweltering Mumbai, NPR's Lauren Frayer reports.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: At 11 o'clock at night, it's still 93 degrees here - no breeze, not even a quiver of the palm trees. And Chrisell Rebello (ph) is patiently waiting in line at an ice cream shop with a cranky, tired toddler.

CHRISELL REBELLO: It's smoldering hot. But not only hot, it's also humid, which is making it very difficult. So I think standing in line for an ice cream for 20 minutes makes it worth it.

FRAYER: Extreme heat is common here in May, but not in April and March, which were both the hottest in more than a century. Some schools have closed early for the summer. Hospitals are on watch for heatstroke. Chrisell says she needs...

REBELLO: A lot of cold drinks, a lot of cold water, AC and probably multiple baths.

FRAYER: Only a fraction of Indians have air conditioning. Instead, people soak rags in water and hang them in doors and windows. Even so, this past weekend, India's electricity demand hit a record high.

ULKA KELKAR: The problem is that all that electricity is still largely coming from fossil fuel sources.

FRAYER: Climate economist Ulka Kelkar says India gets 70% of its electricity from coal. And burning coal contributes to the exact same warming that all these fans and ACs are trying to provide relief from. It's like a vicious circle. But there is a breaking point. And we're soon going to reach it, Kelkar says, especially in humid cities like Mumbai, where I live.

KELKAR: Heat plus humidity - at some stage, it becomes almost impossible for the human body's organs to function normally. Basically, the body just cannot cool itself. And a large fraction of our population in India still works outside in the fields, on building construction, in factories, which are not cool.

FRAYER: More than a billion people are in danger of heat-related health problems across South Asia right now. This heat wave has also hit at a critical time for the wheat harvest. In Punjab, India's breadbasket, a farmer named Major Singh (ph) told local TV...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MAJOR SINGH: (Non-English language spoken).

FRAYER: ...That the grain he's harvesting is shriveled. Yields are down. He's losing money. And this is exactly when India was hoping to help boost global grain supplies that have been hurt by the war in Ukraine.

SURUCHI BHADWAL: Year after year, we may have more incidences of such kind and hotter years.

FRAYER: Climate scientist Suruchi Bhadwal says that shriveled grain, the rolling blackouts, the sweltering temperatures even at 11 p.m., they're India's warning to the rest of the world.

BHADWAL: And each country needs to realize that the warning signs will not be given to us forever.

FRAYER: Lauren Frayer, NPR News, Mumbai.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANOUSHKA SHANKAR'S "LAST CHANCE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.