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Lightning strikes: An underreported crisis

<em><strong>Lightning strikes captured in Goa. Image credit: <a href=";lang=en">Rainer Klotz</a> / 123rf</strong></em>
Lightning captured in Goa. Image credit: Rainer Klotz / 123rf

A popular adage, if not cliché, is that lightning never strikes in the same place twice. However, in India, lightning strikes are increasing. Experts pinpoint climate change as the cause.

An IndiaSpend analysis published earlier this week highlighted the issue. The report notes that the last four months alone have seen more than 200 deaths due to lightning strikes. On average, the report informs, lightning strikes kill 2,360 Indians on average each year. Since 2002, the analysis indicates that the strikes represent the largest single cause of death due to natural disasters. Between 2001 and 2018, almost 42,500 people lost their lives in lightning strikes. 

India’s lightning strikes received a bout of international publicity in late June when more than 100 people in northern and eastern India lost their lives due to the phenomenon. The strikes killed at least 107 people, including 83 in the state of Bihar. Dozens more were reported to be injured. 

By July 5th, Livemint reported that Bihar had witnessed 147 deaths due to lightning strikes in the preceding ten days and approximately 215 deaths due to lightning strikes since the month of March. The state’s Disaster Management Minister Lakshmeshwar Rai informed AFP that he had been “informed by weather experts, scientists and officials that rising temperatures due to climate change is the main cause behind the increasing lightning strikes.”

Lethal lightning strikes are to become the “new normal” for multiple areas of the country, the Climate Resilient Observing Systems Promotion Council warned last year. The tragic deaths witnessed in 2020 – and throughout the last two decades – are a testament to this grim new reality.

However, the India Spend analysis notes that the high death toll does not have to be the case. “For experts closely tracking these deaths, the spate of fatalities every year due to lightning strikes before and during the monsoon months are mostly preventable,” the report states, citing Union Ministry of Earth Sciences secretary Madhavar Nair Rajeevan. “Early warning systems (EWS) to forewarn against thunderstorms and lighting strikes have improved significantly.” 

The report notes various campaigns, volunteer networks, and deployment of technologies such as satellite imaging and mobile apps to reach the citizenry, officials and disaster management networks to dispense warnings about current lightning storms and vulnerable locations. 

The Union Government has taken steps to tackle the scourge of lightning strikes, the IndiaSpend analysis notes. In 2018, the Centre convened an expert committee of Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) and Ministry of Earth Sciences officials and scientists to address the issue and identify workable solutions and mitigative measures. The Lightning Resilient Campaign was founded the following year, a joint venture of the Ministry, the IMD, World Vision India, and the Climate Resilient Observing Systems Promotion Council. The IndiaSpend analysis elaborates at length on the various efforts that have been taken and the improvements that need to be made. 

The IndiaSpend analysis provides a valuable insight into a national tragedy, one that is underreported in the time of COVID-19. The lightning strike tragedy also lends further impetus to the fight against climate change which, as previously reported by Health Issues India, portends to intensify the scale and scope of natural disasters ranging from flooding to heatwaves to dust storms. The urgency of the moment cannot be understated.

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