The Guardian • Issue #2102

Heat wave emergency impacts animals in South East Asia

The Asian emerald cuckoo found in Bangladesh, Bhutan, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Vietnam.

The Asian emerald cuckoo found in Bangladesh, Bhutan, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Vietnam. Photo: JJ Harrison (CC BY-SA 3.0)

There is no single global index on what exactly a heat wave in South East Asia is. According to the India Meteorological Department, a heatwave means temperatures exceeding 40°C in low-lying areas, and 30°C in the mountains. The agency’s Heat Index illustrates how hot the body feels when relative humidity is factored in.

The Heat Index is for humans, not for animals, which are less reported in regards to the devastating impact the present heat emergency is having on them. For livestock, heat waves affect productivity and health. Cows have reduced milk production and fertility issues. Pigs and poultry are particularly susceptible to heat stress, leading to decreased growth rates and higher mortality.

Wildlife faces habitat disruptions and lack of water, leading to dehydration and food scarcity. Species unable to migrate to cooler areas, or to adapt quickly enough, face large population declines. Animals are often unable to cope with prolonged temperatures above 40°C, causing heat shock and death.

Climate change is causing heat waves. In turn, heat waves are affecting rainfall patters, viable habitats, migration patterns, and the populations of many species. Wildlife is now facing threats from habitat loss and species decline, as ecosystems undergo profound changes. A loss of habitat means species are forced to migrate to other areas for food and shelter.

Animal migration is driven by temperature changes, day length, and food availability. The problem is that owing to forest clearance, due to modern farming methods, and the progression of cities, migration is often not easy for populations of birds, butterflies, marine mammals, and fish.

Some bird species are arriving at their breeding grounds two weeks earlier than they did 30 years ago. These migration changes have wider ecological implications, that affect the interactions between species and ecosystems. The present climate crisis is forcing species, such as monkeys and snakes, to move closer to cities and farms in search of food, water and shelter.

Temperatures in parts of India have been over 50°C, with 56°C recorded in some villages. The India Meteorological Department released a severe heat wave warning for the region, after a high number of heatwave days since April. Workers must work in these deadly conditions. Women still cook outdoors despite the severe health risks involved.

The heat wave, which has now broken temperature records, has forced schools to shut down across the country, with millions of children staying home.

In Kolkata, a city of 15 million people, pets and strays are being hospitalised unable to handle the severe heat. There are an estimated 70,000 stray dogs living on the city’s streets. In April the city reached 43°C, the hottest single day since 1954. Gurshaan Kohli, of Humanimal Foundation, said “Scores of dogs and cats have died.”

Schools were closed in the Philippines as authorities tried to deal with the deadly heat wave hitting the region. The Heat Index hit a record 45 degrees. Benjo Basas, chairperson of Teachers’ Dignity Coalition, a group of educators, told DWPM radio station: “We already have reports of high blood pressure and dizziness, and fainting for pupils and teachers in the past days.”

In Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, the national weather agency warned of increased risks of forest fires, dehydration, and heat shock, with temperatures reaching 44°C. The soaring temperatures have resulted in a mass fish die-off in a reservoir in Dong Nai province, south Vietnam. With lower rainfall, the lake level is too low, killing 200 tonnes of fish. The reservoir provides water for crops in the Trang Bom and Vinh Cuu districts. The low water levels mean that farmers are now struggling to keep their crops alive with the present hot dry conditions.

Henna Pekko of Rescue Paws operates an animal shelter in Bangkok, Thailand. She says the animals, “are eating less, and they are reluctant to move.”

In Myanmar at least 1,473 people died from heat shock in April, more than 40 people a day. In Indonesia there has been a surge in dengue fever cases, up to 35,000 this year. Indonesian health ministry spokesperson Siti Nadia Tarmizi told state news agency, Antara, that El Niño has prolonged the dry season accelerating the mosquito lifecycle.

Singapore’s meteorological service predicts this year will surpass the record temperatures of last year, which was the fourth-warmest on record. In Malaysia the meteorological department has issued hot weather warnings of 40°C with 45 cases of heat-related illnesses and two fatalities due to heat stroke, already.

However the heatwaves are measured, they’re getting worse. Action on carbon emissions is needed right now.

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