Patralekha Chatterjee | Rising stress of heat: Act now, before it gets worse

Deccan Chronicle.  | Patralekha Chatterjee

Opinion, Columnists

Cities and states are developing heat action plans, but the focus must remain on the most vulnerable

We really have no option but to control our own emissions that are leading to climate change, and absolutely insist that the rest of the world does the same. (Representational Image/ PTI)

April was the cruellest month. Not quite breeding lilacs out of the dead land or stirring dull roots with spring rain, as imagined by T.S. Eliot in his 1922 poem The Waste Land. But more prosaically, sheltering in air-cooled rooms if you were privileged and wrapping a wet cloth around your head if you had no choice but to work outdoors. April 2022 ended as the third warmest over India in 122 years.

New Delhi, where I live, sizzled at 43.5 degrees Celsius just a few days ago.

Prayagraj in Uttar Pradesh made national headlines with 46 degrees Celsius last week. However, soon heatwaves will slide out of the front pages as temperatures plunge, even if temporarily.

But to think everything is therefore “normal” will be a big mistake.

The dangerous rise in temperature, along with humidity, in many parts of India as well as South Asia, is yet another reminder of the brutal impact that climate change is having in our region and elsewhere.

This is not future shock. Climate change-fuelled extreme heat is a reality, is happening, and while the Central government’s heatwave advisory about “staying indoors, drinking sufficient water, using oral rehydration solution (ORS), and eating seasonal fruits and vegetables with high water content” was certainly timely for those of us who can afford to avoid outdoor exposure and fruits and vegetables despite soaring prices, it is important not to lose sight of the big picture in India.

That relates to the millions of informal workers, living hand to mouth on daily wages, who have no choice but to be exposed to the heat and cannot afford all the protective measures.

Cities and states are developing heat action plans, but the focus must remain on the most vulnerable. On moral as well as economic grounds.

“The countries most vulnerable to productivity losses are those with a high share of agricultural and/or construction employment and those that are located within the tropical and subtropical latitudes, such as Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam, India, Bangladesh and Pakistan…” says a 2019 study by the International Labour Organisation (ILO). It says the country in southern Asia that is most affected by heat stress is India, which lost 4.3 per cent of working hours in 1995 and is projected to lose 5.8 per cent of working hours in 2030.

Although most of the impact in India will be felt in the agricultural sector, more and more working hours are expected to be lost in the construction sector, where heat stress affects both male and female workers, the report notes.

So how prepared are we? Clearly, just the temperature in a city or region will not give us an idea of the magnitude of heat vulnerability or those at highest risk of heat stress. For that, we need to look at many other factors including terrain, social determinants, demographic composition of the population etc.

But one key lesson to be learnt is that being prepared is not necessarily just a function of resources. Ahmedabad is legitimately seen as a pioneer in building heat resilience. It was the first city in India and South Asia which developed a heat action plan after more than 1,300 recorded deaths during a heatwave in May 2010. The Ahmedabad model is not perfect but has inspired action in many other cities and states.

What is just as inspiring is the response of Odisha, one of India’s poorest states, now widely acknowledged as a pioneer in disaster preparedness from cyclones to heatwaves, all of which are becoming more frequent and more severe due to climate change.

“Tackling Heat Waves in Odisha”, a 2016 study by Odisha-based environmentalist Ranjan Panda for the NGO ActionAid, flags important issues in two districts -- Nuapada and Sambalpur. The report makes the point that while Odisha has done well to reduce deaths due to heatwaves, it needs to do more to reduce the range of vulnerabilities related to heatwave conditions. The report not only urged the Odisha government to increase the ex-gratia payment to victims of heatwaves to Rs 4 lakhs, on par with other calamities, it also made an important recommendation of having a database of all affected persons. The state should have a system in place for maintaining data about all victims, irrespective of whether they died or not, or whether their families were compensated or not. This will help future preparedness, the report notes.

An April 2022 issue brief by the National Research Development Corporation (NRDC) on expanding heat resilience across India notes that the Odisha State Disaster Management Authority (OSDMA) conducts studies to identify threshold temperatures for different cities and regions. Given the state’s distinct geophysical regions, it is critical to determine region-specific thresholds that combine temperature and humidity which together cause heatwave-related morbidity and consequent mortality, the report says. The state is also working on building capacity among healthcare workers and setting up dedicated sections in hospitals for treatment of heat-related illnesses and stepped-up staffing during periods of heat stress.

This year, Odisha has taken a decision to restrict the use of public transport services during peak hours in the summer so that passengers do not face heat-related health issues. The state government has directed district administrations to raise check dams using sand packs in small streams and to store water near tubewells for stray animals and birds. These are just a few among many initiatives taken by the state to build resilience in the face of extreme heat.

Over centuries, Indians have learnt many commonsense ways to adapt to heat stress. But there are limits to such adaptation. In March and April this year, large parts of India have already faced the kind of heat people expect in May and June. And it is not as if May and June are going to be significantly less hot. So, we are not only facing higher temperatures, we are also facing longer summers. And as the monsoon clouds gather, the extra humidity will only add to the heat stress till it starts raining.

We really have no option but to control our own emissions that are leading to climate change, and absolutely insist that the rest of the world does the same.

The world is now 1.17 degrees Celsius warmer than at the start of the Industrial Age. Experts say that at the current rate of emissions, it will be over three degrees warmer by the end of this century. We can barely live with the impacts of climate change now. How will we handle a situation that is many times worse?

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