Abhas Jha brings attention to the urgent heat crisis in South Asian cities, where rising temperatures threaten lives, livelihoods, and the economy while also exploring potential solutions to protect the most vulnerable.
South Asia, which is home to nearly 15 per cent of the world’s urban population, is currently facing an unprecedented challenge—the devastating impact of scorching heat on its cities. With its sweltering climate and densely populated urban areas, the region is becoming a tinderbox of heat stress. As climate change worsens, the consequences of rising temperatures are becoming more dire. This article explores the alarming impacts of heat stress on South Asian cities, highlights the situation’s urgency, and presents potential adaptation strategies to help these urban centres combat the looming heat crisis.
Heat stress, a condition resulting from a complex interplay of temperature, humidity, wind speed, and radiation, poses a perennial threat to the region. Recent projections by paint a grim picture: if greenhouse gas emissions continue unabated, deadly heat waves in South Asia may occur by the end of the century, with wet-bulb temperatures surpassing the threshold for human survival.
Surviving the Heat
South Asian cities, already grappling with rapid urbanisation, overcrowding, and inadequate infrastructure, are particularly vulnerable to the effects of scorching heat. Urban heat islands, created by concrete, asphalt, and lack of green spaces, exacerbate the problem, creating a “heat gap”-where low-income urban areas, with less access to public parks, green spaces, and cooling can be up to four degrees Celsius hotter than more prosperous neighbourhoods.
The consequences are manifold. Outdoor workers, from farmers to construction labourers, and street vendors, bear the brunt of the heat. Their productivity dwindles, and their health risks rise due to insufficient sun and heat protection. Heat stress also amplifies existing health conditions, such as cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, and increases the occurrence of heat-related illnesses like heat exhaustion and heat stroke.
The scorching temperatures don’t spare the economy. Reduced working hours, lower productivity, and increased healthcare costs result in staggering financial losses for businesses and individuals. Moreover, the strain on energy systems, caused by heightened cooling demands further burdens already inadequate infrastructure, leading to power outages and disruptions to daily life.
Fighting the Heat
To address the looming heat crisis in South Asian cities, urgent and comprehensive adaptation strategies are crucial. This includes the development and implementation of heat action plans (HAPs) at national, state, and city levels. These plans must include early warning systems, public awareness campaigns, health interventions, cooling centres, water distribution, and emergency response measures. Fortunately, success stories from cities like Ahmedabad, Nagpur, and Bhubaneswar in India demonstrate that HAP’s significantly reduce heat-related mortality and morbidity.
Improving access to affordable and reliable cooling technologies and services for low-income households and communities is crucial. Passive cooling design, natural ventilation, green roofs, and building shading can effectively fight the impacts of the heat. Additionally, enhancing energy efficiency and promoting renewable energy sources for cooling, along with subsidies or vouchers for cooling appliances or electricity bills, is essential. A 2022 study by the World Bank found that using alternative and innovative energy-efficient technologies in India can open an investment opportunity of $1.6 trillion by 2040 and has the potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions significantly and create nearly 3.7 million jobs.
Strengthening the capacity of health systems and workers to prevent and treat heat-related illnesses becomes a vital line of defence. Enhanced and improved surveillance and reporting of heat-related cases, training health workers on heat-related diagnosis and treatment, ensuring access to clean water and sanitation and expanding health coverage and outreach strengthen the ability to combat the rising heat and safeguard vulnerable communities. A World Health Organization (WHO) study estimates that climate change could result in an additional 38,000 heat-related deaths per year among older people between 2030 and 2050.
Beating the Heat
Heat stress is a serious threat, especially to the lives and livelihoods of millions of people in South Asia, especially the poor and vulnerable with limited access to cooling facilities, health care, and social protection. It adversely affects outdoor workers, such as farmers, construction workers, and street vendors, who often lack adequate protection from the sun and heat, resulting in reduced productivity and income. To mitigate the impact of extreme heat on the vulnerable, South Asian countries should provide social protection schemes. These can include providing cash transfers or vouchers to compensate for the loss of income due to reduced working hours or days during heat waves. Cash transfers or vouchers can help the poor afford basic needs, such as food, water, cooling appliances, or electricity bills when they cannot work outside. Such adaptive social protection measures have been shown to be extremely effective in protecting the poor and vulnerable in the aftermath of disasters by not only helping meet essential requirements but also reducing the incentive for low-income individuals to work under unsafe conditions, thereby increasing their adaptive capacity. A recent World Bank study in Niger shows that cash transfers to poor households as a response to rainfall shocks can increase household consumption by up to 10 per cent. In Nepal, the World Food Program implementing an anticipatory flood forecast financing program found that every $1 invested in the program yielded more than $34 in avoided losses.
The cities of South Asia are on the frontlines of an escalating heat crisis. The impact of scorching temperatures on urban centres, their inhabitants, and the economy cannot be overstated. Urgent and comprehensive action is needed to implement adaptation strategies and protect the lives and livelihoods of millions, particularly the poor and vulnerable who lack access to cooling facilities, healthcare, and social protection. By adopting these measures, South Asian cities can mitigate the devastating effects of heat stress, build resilience, and pave the way toward a green and inclusive future. Failure to act now would risk a future of unbearable heat and insurmountable challenges for future generations.