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OPINION: Beating the heat – are we doing enough?

Aditi Paul, CDKN’s Country Programme Manager for India reflects on the ongoing heat wave crisis in India and CDKN’s work to improve resilience to extreme heat.

Heat waves are not new in India; they come every year and end with the approach of the monsoon, as is the understanding of the locals. But this year, the country is grappling with week-long temperatures topping 47-48 degrees Celsius in many parts of the country, with Andhra Pradesh and Telangana the worst hit states.

According to the Global Statistics on Emergency Events Database (EM-DAT), maintained by the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED), India is facing its second deadliest heat wave ever. EM-DAT also shows that this is the world’s fifth deadliest heat wave. At the time of writing, the death toll has been estimated at 2000+. Many more deaths potentially remain unreported, especially in rural areas where farmers are also reporting the impact of the high temperatures and water crisis on their crop.

In 1998, the death toll from India’s most deadly heat wave reached 2,541, killing the vulnerable, women and children without sufficient access to water, electricity and primary health services. Subsequent heat waves in 2002, 2003 and 2010 also saw high numbers of casualties. Research indicates that those areas already experiencing heat waves will see ones that are longer lasting and greater in intensity, while parts of the country that have never been exposed to such heat will experience unfamiliarly extreme conditions; their existing healthcare facilities are likely to collapse under overwhelming demand for treatment and emergency services. So, the concern remains and as the emergency experts ask – is the government’s ability to respond to the crisis enough, or is comprehensively preparing for and mitigating the impacts of the extreme weather still a far cry?

CDKN’s action to beat the heat

CDKN recognises that heat waves are going to continue to have disastrous impacts unless proactive measures are taken to adapt. Since 2013, we have been actively working to support climate resilience in India, piloting action research in Ahmedabad to understand the impacts of the heat waves that the city grapples with every year – and supporting measures to save lives. The results are quite remarkable.

The first of its kind in Asia, the study drew together research to show the correlation between the heat waves and deaths in Ahmedabad in 2010 and found an excess of more than 1,000 deaths compared to other years. Our partners at the Natural Resources Defence Council (NRDC) and the Indian Institute of Public Health subsequently collaborated with the city government of Ahmedabad to put in place a system to save lives during heat waves: The Ahmedabad Heat Health Action Plan.

The Plan puts in place an early warning system for residents, provides preparation training to medical and community workers, builds public awareness of the heat-related risks, and coordinates an inter-agency emergency response efforts when heat waves hit. “Ahmedabad’s most vulnerable populations have been carefully identified through on-the-ground studies, focus groups, interviews and workshops that considered factors affecting heat exposure, susceptibility to heat-related illness and adaptive capacity,” explained Dr. Jeremy Hess, Assistant Professor of Environmental Health at the Rollins School of Public Health of Emory University. “Ahmedabad’s Heat Action Plan is tailored to help the city’s at-risk residents cope with rising heat.”

This year, the team is ensuring the Action Plan is mainstreamed within the government system and is reaching vulnerable communities. In order to safeguard the project’s continuity, they are building a strong surveillance and monitoring system to evaluate the effectiveness of the Plan, which would not have been possible without the government’s leadership and foresight in deepening implementation, changing policies and operationalising an effective early warning system.

The Plan has been recognised nationally and internationally for its success and has been placed in the top twenty at the Munich Re Risk Award 2015, which was presented at the World Conference for Disaster Risk Reduction in Sendai, March 2015. Recognising its co-benefits, CDKN has ventured into a 3-year project to support the scaling-up the Plan in the State of Gujarat, the scaling-out of the Plan in two new cities, and is leveraging its knowledge network for wider adoption.

Effective Mitigation Measures Needed

There is long way to go before we can feel safe under the scorching sun and haywire temperatures.  Indian cities with increased urbanisation are susceptible to the heat island effect and have inadequate health infrastructure to combat epidemic conditions; it’s time that these issues were dealt with strategically at the national level. Calls for their recognition in the country’s Disaster Action Plan – a well-integrated, thought-out, time-bound plan with supportive institutional machineries in place to implement and monitor effectiveness, while also customised to local level to support a city’s socio-economical and geographical settings – are pressing.

Such inclusion may involve short-term measures to generate awareness of heat-related risks, such as guidance on Do’s and Don’t’s during heat waves. It may promote early warning systems and interagency coordination to address the extreme events. The medium-term measures might focus on infrastructure provisioning and improving access to adequate health services, shelter and water for the vulnerable. The long-term action requires policy changes. Such climate considerations in future urban planning should incorporate building codes that include heat-reflecting materials and adequate natural ventilation; shaded landscaping to provide temporary shelter; parks and grassland for ground-water recharge, and; an integrated land-use and transport planning that reduces motorised pollution. These are only possible when city officials and planners fully recognise the impacts of climate change and the current inherent vulnerability of their citizens and systems.

Image credit: IIPH.

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