Summer time concerns
It's not even April, and vast swathes of India are already in the throes of a hot summer. Temperatures across much of North and Central India have touched worrying highs. According to Skymet, a private weather forecaster, states like Gujarat, Rajasthan, and parts of Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh are observing temperatures over the 40 degree Celsius mark. Other weather forecasters have predicted that except for the coasts and Himalayan regions, almost all of India will witness temperatures above 38 degrees Celsius in the coming week.
The maximum temperatures at few places in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, which regularly suffer from the worst conditions and see the highest heat-related casualty count, have already crossed 41 degrees Celsius. As per the Indian Meteorological Department, India is expected to experience a hotter than average summer this year, following 2016—the warmest year on record since 1901. Allied with fears of a 'below normal' monsoon season this year and deficient rainfall, this spike in temperatures is not good news for a country that has suffered significant casualties due to heatwaves in the past decade.
In 2015, which saw a massive spike in heat-related deaths, especially in states like Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, and Odisha, the National Disaster Management Authority recorded 2,442 casualties. For the following year, the NDMA claims that the number came down after an action plan was sent to the states ahead of last year's summer. Health and environment experts, however, have raised serious concerns about the manner in which heat-related deaths are documented.
In its Action Plan released before the summer of 2016, the NDMA observes: "As Heat Wave is not a notified disaster at the National level, accurate information and data related to heat wave deaths and illnesses are not available. To prepare, and take necessary mitigative action we need data on the age group, sex, and occupation of those who die of heat waves. We also need to collect data on whether the deaths occurred indoor or outdoor, and also about the economic status of the people who died." There is also a lack of clarity as to what constitutes a heat wave death. Deaths caused by heat stroke and exhaustion are counted, while the final tally does not account for how heat exposure could exacerbate respiratory diseases, for example, which may not result in instant death.
The effects could show up after a few days, leading to a potential fatality. In other words, the figure of 2442 posted by the NDMA may be a serious underestimation of heat-related casualties. Without accurate data, it is difficult for governments to establish a robust plan of action. What is indisputable, however, is that heat waves are only going to get worse due to global warming in the coming years, and India's poorest citizens are going to suffer the most. For example, for labourers in the unorganised sector and farmers, missing a day of work would mean losing out on a day's wages.
Following two consecutive years of deficient rainfall, 2016 was witness to normal monsoons. Unfortunately, it is has done little to recharge our water bodies adequately. Earlier this month, the government said that water levels in India's 91 major reservoirs were at 41% (less than half) of their storage capacity. The challenges faced by various state governments with the onset of a hot summer are complex. But in an initiative that is bound to make their jobs easier, the IMD last year began to issue weather advisories for heatwave conditions between April and June. The forecast will be updated and early warnings sent every fifth day. It is a process the IMD often uses for cyclones and cloud bursts. In response to the devastating heat waves of 2015, which claimed the lives of hundreds in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, both state governments came up with necessary action plans.
For example, the Telangana government started a mass awareness campaign that will use mobile text messages, or Whatsapp alerts to circulate heat wave warnings, besides provisions for makeshift medical camps and public cooling stations with drinking water and oral rehydration salts. Workers enrolled under MGNREGA were ordered to avoid the afternoon heat between noon and 3 pm. But with hotter than usual summers predicted this year, public resources will be stretched to their limits. For solutions, the state government has looked to Ahmedabad in Gujarat, where the city's municipal corporation has taken concrete steps to prevent deaths and injury due to prolonged and potentially lethal heat exposure.
The Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation has sought to tackle this climatic menace with a comprehensive Heat Action Plan, which has been in place since 2013. The plan to combat heat-related deaths requires the collaborative effort of important public institutions.
This plan revolves around raising public awareness around simple steps to prevent heat strokes. These include provisions for drinking water, buttermilk, and any other hydrating liquid in public areas, besides telling citizens to stay out of the sun as much as possible. In consonance with Ahmedabad's plan, the Odisha government last year issued alerts for residents to remain indoors during the hottest part of the days between 11.30 am and 3.30 pm. Among other measures, schools have been asked to stay closed on days when a heat wave is predicted. Local bodies across the country will need to get their act together in a bid to tackle what is likely to be a record summer.
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