- While death due to forces of nature witnessed a decreasing trend in 2016, deaths due to lightning and heat/sun strokes increased that year, according to the recently released Accidental Deaths and Suicides in India (ADSI) – 2016 by The National Crime Records Bureau.
- The data reveals that lightning, heat/sunstroke and exposure to cold are responsible for more than 60 percent of the total deaths attributable to forces of nature in 2016 in India.
- The ADSI 2016 also highlights that in 53 megacities of India, more than 50 percent of the deaths that were due to forces of nature were linked to heat/sunstroke and exposure to cold.
In 2016, the year when a heatwave in India took over a hundred lives, fatalities caused by heat/sun stroke were the second highest cause of “accidental deaths due to forces of nature” in the country.
According to the government data of 2016, released recently, out of 8,684 accidental deaths due to nature-related factors, 15.4 percent (1,338 deaths) were because of heat or sunstroke. The highest number of deaths due to forces of nature was attributed to lightning, according to the data. Forces of nature include events such as avalanches, tornado, earthquake, flood, torrential rain, among others.
However, the overall number of deaths due to forces of nature in a year went down by more than 50 percent, from 22,960 in 2012 to 8,684 in 2016, with the most significant decrease seen in 2015.
The details were revealed in the ‘Accidental Deaths & Suicides in India (ADSI) 2016’ made public recently by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) that is under the Indian government’s Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA).
According to the data, in 2016, the total number of accidental deaths across India was 418,221 and of that 8,684 deaths were attributed to forces of nature while the rest were due to other accidental reasons not related to nature. This was a decline compared to 2015 when the deaths due to forces of nature were 10,510 with a total of 413,457 accidental deaths reported in the country that year. However, under causes of deaths attributable to ‘forces of nature’, deaths due to lightning and forest fires increased during the year 2016, over the previous year 2015, the report highlighted.
Deaths due to avalanche, exposure to cold, tornado, earthquake, epidemic, flood, heat/sunstroke, landslide and torrential rain meanwhile, decreased in 2016 over 2015.
In 2016, of the 8,684 deaths due to forces of nature, more than 50 percent were due to lightning and heat stroke, with a break down of 38.2 percent (3,315) deaths attributable to lightning, 15.4 percent (1,338) deaths due to heat/sunstroke, 8.9 percent (775) deaths due to flood, 7.9 percent (687) deaths due to exposure to cold, 2.4 percent (210) deaths due to landslide and 1.6 percent (143) deaths due to torrential rain.
Among the states, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand, and Odisha alone accounted for more than 50 percent of deaths attributed to the forces of nature. Uttar Pradesh had the maximum with 1,307 of the 8,684 deaths followed by Bihar (1,057 deaths), Madhya Pradesh (899 deaths), Jharkhand (757 deaths) and Haryana (604 deaths).
The data also revealed that most of the deaths were among people in the 30-45 age group, mostly men. 28.2 percent (2,448) deaths due to forces of nature were of people in this age group while 6.7 percent of victims (586 out of 8,684 deaths) were below 14 years of age, 7.3 percent (631 deaths) were in the 14-18 age group, 20.3 (1,761 deaths) percent in the 18-30 age-group, 24.5 percent (2,128) were in 45-60 age-group while 13 percent (1,130 deaths) victims belonged to senior citizens category (60 years and above).
More recently, since 2016, India has seen major extreme weather linked disasters like the Kerala floods of 2018 which took over 483 lives, floods across multiple states in 2019 which caused hundreds of lives, cyclones like Fani in Odisha which killed over 75 people and over 180 people killed in the Bihar in the June heatwave this year.
Heat and cold strike megacities while overall deaths due to nature decrease in 2016
In India’s megacities, which have a population of over one million people, deaths due to forces of nature in 2016, witnessed a decrease of 70.7 percent, compared to 2015. Out of 69,400 accidental deaths in 53 megacities of India in 2016, 495 were due to forces of nature, according to the NCRB data.
Of these, maximum deaths were reported due to exposure to cold (26.7 percent) followed by heat/sunstroke (21.4 percent),” said the data.
In some cities, heat and cold were the sole reasons for deaths due to nature. All nature-related deaths in Vijayawada (11 deaths), reported in 2016, were due to heat/sunstroke while all four deaths in Chandigarh city, 75.9 percent (22 out of 29 deaths) in Allahabad and 62.5 percent (five out of eight deaths) in Agra were due to exposure to cold. Among the states, heat/sun stroke caused a significant 74 percent (216 out of 292) of total accidental deaths due to forces of nature in Telangana.
Chronic heat exposure can seriously affect the health and productivity and climate change will amplify the duration and magnitude of exposure, said environmental health researcher Tanya Singh referencing the policy brief ‘Cities, Climate change and Chronic Heat Exposure’.
Singh, associated with the Climate Change Research Centre (CCRC), at the University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia, said developing and emerging economies are particularly vulnerable because most are located partially or entirely in tropical regions, and because they are urbanising.
“Urban areas (including megacities) face additional risks from heat because their density amplifies temperatures through the urban heat island effect and because of the conditions in and the design of unplanned ‘informal’ settlements, which create conditions that exacerbate heat risks while their residents lack the financial means to mitigate the impacts,” Singh said.
The risks are especially high for the elderly, children and the infirm. She said decisions on infrastructure investment in urban areas are central to managing chronic heat exposure and to avoid it in the future.
“Majority of accidental deaths due to epidemic and exposure to cold were reported in Uttar Pradesh which accounted for 44.4 percent (16 out of 36 deaths), 27.4 percent (188 out of 687 deaths) of total such deaths reported in the country respectively during 2016,” revealed the data.
Lightning caused nearly 80 percent of deaths in some states
In some states, a single type of natural event was the prime reason for the majority of the deaths recorded due to forces of nature.
For instance, as per the ADSI 2016, in Odisha, lightning caused 80.5 percent (376 of the 467) deaths that were attributed to the forces of nature. In Karnataka, it was 80.2 percent (77 of 96 deaths) and in Tamil Nadu it was 79.2 percent (38 out of 48 deaths).
In a 2019 paper from Population Council, New Delhi, researchers showed lightning strikes claimed the most number of lives between 2001 and 2014, among deaths due to exposure to severe weather in India.
An underestimated hazard, lightning caused the most number of deaths (40 percent), followed by extreme rainfall (24 percent) and unseasonably warm weather (20 percent) and extreme cold (15 percent) in India during the period, according to the study.
In India, every year more than 2500 people die due to lightning and experts say that the severity and frequency of thunderstorm/dust storms are expected to shoot up due to increasing global temperature. However, the phenomena (thunderstorm and lightning, squall, dust/hailstorm, and strong winds) are not included in the centrally notified list of natural disasters.
It was only in 2015, that the Fourteenth Finance Commission, recommended states to include state-specific disasters, including lightning and heatwaves, in their eligible list of disasters for funding support from the State Disaster Response Fund (SDRF). States like Odisha then approved the inclusion of lightning among eight state-specific disasters under the SDRF.
Geophysicist Manoj Srivastava of Banaras Hindu University said the availability of moisture and aerosol is associated with lightning activity. The increasing presence of aerosol is linked to urbanisation and rampant felling of trees.
“Our studies show an increase in lightning in the monsoon season over the northeastern region. Aerosol presence plays a major role in lightning activity over the north-west sector of Indo Gangetic Plains but local weather conditions such as the convergence of dry and moist air are the principal cause of lightning over the north-east sector of the plains,” said Srivastava.
He said the region experiencing Nor’westers or the Kalbaishakhi (local rainfall and thunderstorm in parts of India and Bangladesh) is most prone to lightning.
“This region includes Jharkhand, Odisha, Bihar, parts of Bengal, parts of northeast India. The underlying cause is the interaction between cold wind from the northwest and moisture-laden winds from the Bay of Bengal which means moisture is available and there is a possibility of convection. And if you include aerosols then that provides a boost to lightning activity,” explained Srivastava. Convection is observed when warm air rises and cold air drops down. Convective activity is associated with lightning.
Srivastava said elevated levels of aerosols (air pollution) should be reduced. “The natural availability of aerosol is needed but excess is not needed,” he said.
Banner image: Lightning accounted for nearly 40 percent of deaths due to forces of nature in 2016. Photo by Rejaul Arsad/Wikimedia Commons.