Understanding Heat Stress in Rural Dryland Areas in Marathwada region of Maharashtra: Experiences from field

26 Jun 2015 - 13:15

By WOTR team members in the field: Bhupali Mhaksar, Dr. Adithya P, Jeevan, Yogesh Shinde, Nitin and Yash Kadam

With global temperatures on the rise, India is a country where hot summers are being experienced with greater frequency and intensity. In May 2015 a heat wave swept across India, affecting large tracts of northern, central and southern parts (including parts of Maharashtra) and claiming (conservatively) more than 1100 lives. The arid and semi-arid regions are more prone to these.

Keeping this in mind, the team at WOTR thought of exploring the health impacts of heat stress and how people cope. The team visited Adha, Sindhi and Ghosegaon villages located in Jalna district in the Indian State of Maharashtra. Why Jalna? Jalna is a district adjacent to Aurangabad and within the same semi-arid transect in the Maharashtra study sites. Typical of the region, frequent droughts, erratic rainfall, improper land husbandry and degradation of the fragile local ecosystem is commonly observed. In the recent past as part of another project, WOTR applied its Vulnerability Assessment tool (CoDriVE-PD),wherein high summer temperature was identified  as one of the risks. Also, a ‘heat-stroke’ death was reported in the same region. These factors make Jalna an area of interest for examining factors contributing to vulnerability to heat stress.


Above: Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme Work site, Adha Village

In 2014 and 2015, the months of February, March and April saw unseasonal rain for a few days each month and at times it was fairly heavy. There were also days of intense hailstorms. It seemed the summer would be cooler. However, not to miss out a year, WOTR initiated a scoping study in Jalna district in the summer of 2015 to understand if heat stress is really a problem experienced by the people in this area.. 

Prior to leaving for the field visit in the month of May, the local team warned us to come prepared, however, we thought that the temperature of 42-43 °C would be “bearable”. But when we reached Jalna, the intensity of heat was severe. Driving through Jalna district, we were greeted with a bleak sight. There were very few trees all around and hardly any in the fields. The shining tin roofs reflected the sun. The big pucca (concrete) houses of the better-off farmers contrasted with the kachha(earthen) houses with small windows and mainly tin roofs of the poorer households.


Above: A group discussions with MGNREGS workers on site,  Adha Village

As we walked through the narrow village lanes in May,with the mercury at 43 °C, our bodies became lethargic and headaches started slowing us down. Initially, we were eager to seek refuge within the houses. But there was no respite indoors, with the tin roofs and power cuts turning the houses into furnaces. We noted that the most homes of the landless poor had no electricity connection, while others, though they were connected to the grid, faced even up to 8 hours long electricity cuts.

We observed that women wore synthetic saris and the children and youth too had synthetic clothing women feel hotter in synthetic saris. However the older men wore the traditional cotton white ‘dhoti’ or pajamas and white shirts. Little children below 2 years are left unclothed. This is considered best for the summer. They are clothed during other seasons of the year.

In the course of our conversations with the locals, we were informed of a case that had occurred earlier in the month. A couple with their 2 months old child travelled 90 km from Aurangabad city on a motorcycle to attend a wedding. By the time they reached Sindhi village, they were shocked to find that their 2 months old child had died. The community mentioned that this healthy child was exposed to sun for almost 2 hrs. which lead to death.

Above: House with Tin roof top at Ghosegaon, Jalna

During our interactions with the women of the village, they indicated that they fetched drinking water 3-5 times a day. Some houses were located about 1 km from the nearest water source during hot sun as well.

We came across a group of about 30 people working in the open under hot sun; building earthen bunds. We interacted with them to understand their experiences. They indicated that they were availing work under a government program called the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme(MGNREGS). The MGNREGS provides work opportunities for villagers when there are no other income generating avenues. In summers, their day begins early, going out to the field and worksite by 7 am. They try and stay indoors between 12 to 4 pm. They described what they go through as they work in the hot summer sun: “We experience extreme discomfort because of the heat. We don’t feel well. We drink more water than usual, around 8 to 10 liters per day. Our food intake has reduced, because our stomach stays full with water. We sweat continuously and the heat saturates our bodies. “Yet, they have no option but to work for daily survival. During discussions with the community, some shared, “After returning from our work out in the sun, if we drink water immediately and hastily, the water intake caused weakness, nausea, and feverishness.

Coming to our own experience, we observed that heat in the month of May was much harsher to bear. During the course of one week’s field visit, the heat took its toll on us. Our skin burned and we experienced constant fatigue. Throughout the week we walked around with covered heads and faces. Each team member consumed at least 7 liters of water a day and Oral Rehydration Solution (ORS) was required to prevent fainting due to dehydration and fatigue. Some team members suffered from abdominal cramps and had to see the doctor. Thus, along with the local community the team got a short experience small taste of the wrath of a Jalna summer firsthand! What better way to start studying the impacts and causes of heat? 

 We would be interested to collaborate with if any other ASSAR or CARIAA partners who face similar heat stress conditions and challenges in their study sites. It would help us to relate better with experiences of other partners as we progress into our research phase and develop methodologies to study heat stress.