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An extreme heatwave sits over southern Asia, hitting early and without precedent. March was the hottest in India since records began 122 years ago. In Delhi, temperatures are expected to pass 44C this week; in Pakistan’s Balochistan region, the mercury has been touching 50C for some time. Crops are failing and there are power shortages as the demand for electricity soars. Uncontrollable fires are breaking out, including in landfill sites on the outskirts of Delhi, adding to the toxic air.
The Indian Premier League continues regardless. Last week the Royal Challengers Bangalore captain, Faf du Plessis, talked about the challenges of playing in such debilitating conditions. “I take a lot of fluids before the game,” he said. “We practiced today and it was very, very hot. It’s good to get your body used to what you are going to get with respect to the conditions. But also, on the day, it is very important to try and manage the intensity. When it is very hot, like it is at the moment, you have got to make sure you conserve as much as you can. ”
“For instance, when you’re batting,” agreed RCB bowler Harshal Patel, “when there’s a definite two, you try and take a two, but when there’s not a definite two, just try and conserve some energy.”
The 2019 Hit for Six report examined the physical and psychological risks to cricketers from intense heat, from heatstroke to impaired decision-making. It pointed to the particular dangers to athletes of high wet-bulb temperatures, which measure how well humans cool down by sweating when it’s hot and humid. A wet-bulb globe temperature (WBGT) of more than 35C is deadly – last week it hit 29C in cities in West Bengal and Odisha. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends that extreme caution is taken with any continuous exercise with a WBGT of 23C and over.
Among other things, Hit for Six suggested that countries came up with heat rules, heat-resistant clothing and reminded governing bodies they had a duty of care to children, who are less able to regulate their body temperatures and have none of the resources of IPL teams, with physios on hand to ensure the players are properly hydrated, have prepared properly and can cool down their core temperatures with ice towels handed to them on the boundary.
Disha Shetty, a science journalist based in South Asia and a reporter for The Fuller Project, sees a real lack of commitment to the dangers of climate change. “We are having some conversations about why our school students are stepping out in that heat, but it needs a lot more engagement on the public health side, as well as decision-makers across different sectors, including sports administrators. Extreme heat, coupled with dehydration, can be deadly.
“I think in developing countries we have had a tendency not to invest much in public health but the climate crisis is a public health crisis. While this is understood in climate circles and public health circles, it isn’t acknowledged much outside of that. We have to have big conversations on how we manage sports facilities given both the high air pollution levels in south Asia and now the extreme heat. At the moment we just kind of live with it but there are certain things we are just not going to be able to live with and heatwaves will be one of them. ”
In late April the Indian PFA wrote to the Indian Football Association, asking it to reschedule matches that were set to kick off at 3pm in the state of West Bengal with temperatures sitting at around 40C: “The health ministry’s notification states that people should stay indoors during this heatwave… it is rather sad and unfortunate that the Federation and the league organizers of the country have no concern on the health hazard faced by professional footballers playing in these extreme conditions. ”
In India, though, it is cricketers, not footballers, who have voices loud enough to reach government – just as Marcus Rashford was able to in the UK over free school meals. For Shetty, cricketing voices could be crucial in increasing both action and understanding.
“Cricketers in India have a lot of clout, a lot of following, and it would help tremendously if they would talk more about climate and environmental issues. I also wonder how sustainable sports will be in this changing climate. Cricket is a low-cost way of entertainment and joy but it is played out in the open and in a heating world that is going to be increasingly problematic. ”
Sherry Rehman, Pakistan’s minister for climate, told the Guardian Pakistan was facing an “existential crisis” – one that links it with India and other countries in the global south who are and will be experiencing the climate emergency disproportionately to their historic emissions.
“I see a distinct difference in the way this heatwave is covered in the Indian media and the western media,” says Shetty. “In the western media, questions are centered around what should Indian and Pakistan leaders do, whereas in the Indian media we are talking a lot more about equity and how the rest of the world is going to have to reduce its carbon emissions.
“We are talking about what historically high carbon emitters are going to do to help those without that footprint – a conversation that I don’t see a lot of western publications having. In terms of climate change, the solutions are going to be global and not just something the developing world has to grapple with. Global climate emissions have to be brought down, not just in India, Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh. ”
This idea was touched upon in the Hit for Six report, when it suggested the ICC set up a global climate fund to help countries particularly hit by the climate crisis. Three years on, no known progress has been made.