Heat waves have become a global phenomenon, but in South Asia the situation is worsening due to climate change. Rohit Magotra on the silent climate disaster and the importance of heat action plans in India and beyond.
Heat waves and exposure to high temperature can cause heat stress in human beings, a phenomenon that is becoming more frequent every summer. Being prepared for heat waves and responding adequately to them must therefore become an essential task for cities worldwide. In this regard, heat action plans are a critical adaptation measure to manage heat stress.
Globally, heat action plans have helped communities cope better with extremely hot weather. They aim to provide a framework for implementation, coordination, and evaluation of a city’s planned measures to cope with extreme heat and minimise the incidence of illnesses caused by exposure. In this article, we will take a closer look at the impact of heat waves and heat action plans, focusing especially on India.
Heat Waves: The Silent Disaster
Unlike floods, cyclones, earthquakes, or mudslides that are accompanied by sound and fury, heat waves are a silent disaster. They are a disaster that can create havoc for three continuous months (in tropical countries), year after year. Heat waves leave their impact on people’s health, and therefore on their livelihood and productivity, in a manner so devastating that it leaves them struggling for the rest of the year.
Heat waves are a climate change-induced natural hazard and are understood as an unusual period of hot and humid or hot and dry conditions, which last three to five days during the summer season. IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report (IPCC, 2014) indicates that the last 50 years have witnessed a hike in the frequency of hot days, nights, and heat waves globally. Data from weather stations between 1979 and 2017 reveal that the extreme combinations of heat and humidity doubled in much of India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. Around 800 million South Asians – almost half of the region’s population – live in heat “hotspots” that will face worsening heat waves in the future.
The Impact of Heat Waves
Heat stress induced deaths in 2100 are estimated to be about 85 deaths per 100,000 globally and above 100 per 100,000 in lower-income groups. Globally, 2 per cent of total working hours are projected to be lost every year, either because it is too hot to work or because workers have to work at a slower pace. Lost productivity from heat stress at work, particularly in developing countries, is expected to be valued at 4.2 trillion US Dollars per year by 2030. Since countries in South Asia are among the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, and therefore also to heat waves, lost productivity from heat stress will drive more inequality, especially in the developing countries of the region.
Furthermore, heat impacts on health are more severe in cities because people are exposed to higher and nocturnally sustained temperatures due to the urban heat island effect. Heat-related illnesses are subtle and globally recognised to pose serious health threats to urban dwellers. Between 1992 and 2015, they caused 24,223 deaths across India alone, according to the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA).
Cities across the world have risen to the challenge of extreme summer temperatures by implementing heat action plans that aim to equip authorities and communities with strategies to adapt to heat wave incidences. New York, Toronto, Paris, and Madrid are among the many cities that have put in place comprehensive plans to tackle heat waves. In South Asia, the momentum is building as more and more countries address the need for strategies responding to increasing heat.
Why We Need Heat Action Plans
Heat action plans aim to provide a framework for implementation, coordination, and evaluation of mechanisms instituted to reduce the impact of heat waves and prevent heat stress. Thus, they include early warning systems, preparedness strategies that address public awareness and community outreach, mechanisms for inter-agency coordination, and they also designate responsibilities to the different government departments that have a role in mitigating heat stress during heat waves. Heat action plans should also schedule capacity building of healthcare professionals, including frontline health staff working in the community, and promotion of adaptive measures among population groups most vulnerable to heat stress.
India was the first in the region to launch a state-level action plan for Odisha in 1999, following more than 2000 heat wave deaths in 1998, and a city level plan in 2013 in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, following a severe heat wave in 2010. Subsequently, the NDMA instituted a national framework for heat action plans and released guidelines in 2016 for state governments and city administrations to follow. It also undertook capacity-building exercises at the state and city levels to enable government bodies to follow the framework and develop heat action plans.
NDMA has engaged more than 120 cities and districts to design and develop heat action plans in India. The institute Integrated Research & Action for Development (IRADe) with support from the International Development Research Centre Canada (IDRC), and in association with the Indian Meteorology Department (IMD), local municipal bodies and public health agencies, have developed climate adaptive heat action plans at ward level for the Indian cities of Rajkot, Bhubaneswar, and New Delhi. The framework is being further extended to selected cities in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.
Heat Action Plans Save Lives
The introduction and adaption of heat action plans across Indian cities have helped in decreasing heat-related mortality significantly from 1274 persons (2010) to 79 persons (2022).
In conclusion, heat action plans not only enhance the livelihood of the most vulnerable communities and contribute to the overall health of a city, but they also help cities attain various sustainability goals under the Sustainable Development Goals framework of the UN. Most importantly however, a well-structured and well-implemented heat action plan prevents the loss of thousands of lives by lowering heat wave mortality cases every year.