Under scorching heat
India’s laid-back approach in dealing with heatwaves has resulted in a below-par mitigation while adaptation also stumbles on account of not-so-strong global coordination
India has been witnessing heat waves for long but the intensity and frequency with which it is scaling up is alarmingly new. March this year has been tagged with the notorious distinction of being the hottest month in 122 years since 1901 when the India Meteorological Department started collecting national records. With an average minimum temperature touching 33.1 per cent, March, for the first time may become part of all the three pre-monsoon months facing heatwaves. Essentially, heatwaves marked an early arrival this year. Until the monsoon arrives in June, the year 2022 may also get past 2010 records — the year that shook India to its core with heatwaves accounting for over 1,300 human deaths. Then between 2010 to 2018, 6,176 people were reported to have lost their lives to the phenomenon which is yet not categorised as a national disaster!
In the first place, the official death figures are reported to be grossly underestimated. Secondly, these estimates don't provide the real picture of the problem as they are based on absolute temperature and not the wet-bulb temperature which, the experts say, could depict the ground realities more accurately. Wet-bulb temperature incorporates the impact of both heat and humidity on the human body. Even with a lower absolute temperature, the impact may be high — which can be aptly reflected by wet-bulb temperature. Thirdly, it has been impacting the labour force quite adversely — reducing both the productivity and earnings of the labourers while also exposing them to severe health risks. Fourth, heat waves also have a debilitating effect on the environment. Furthermore, two more recent manifestations of the heatwave phenomenon can be discussed here — increasing instances of fires in urban settings or the 'heat islands' where the impact of heatwaves is more pronounced; and sharp coal shortage on account of increased electricity consumption amid rising temperatures, leading to blackouts in several cities. It won't at all be wrong to say that heatwaves are not just killing people in large numbers but also impacting their lives, livelihoods and personal well-being in multiple ways.
Like many other harmful phenomena, heat waves too impact populations in a differential manner. The impacts can be broadly segregated into two categories — impact on the haves and have nots. There is a class of people who can afford to stay indoors with their ACs and coolers on, and fret upon high electricity bills and blackouts. The second category comprises people who must venture out under the scorching sun to drive rickshaws, load trucks, ferry luggage etc. to earn two square meals for their families. The second category is particularly vulnerable and their safety must attract policy focus now as the scientists these days don't mix their words in saying that extreme heat waves will become more common in coming years. The frequency, duration and intensity of heatwaves are very likely to rise by the end of the century. The Ministry of Earth Sciences in its report, 'Assessment of Climate Change over the Indian Region', stated that the all-India average frequency of summer heatwaves will increase to about 2.5 events per season by the mid-21st century, with a further rise to about three events by the end of the 21st century.
Interestingly, the rise in the instances of heatwaves coincides with a proportional increase in global warming and climate change-related incidents. The International Panel on Climate Change has also flagged its concern around the impact of climate change on extreme climatic events, including heat waves — particularly for countries in South Asia, including India.
The solutions to the heatwave problem — both in terms of mitigation and adaptation measures — coincide with those related to climate change and global warming. Adaptation response to heatwaves will have to be largely global in nature, with countries coming in close coordination to find a shared solution. Though India announced ambitious targets at COP 26 this year, practically, the country's overdependence on coal and other fossil fuels keeps it at odds with Western nations. Despite being vocal in its vision of tackling climate change, India knows the risks of making any abrupt decision to move away from coal. The travails of the Sri Lankan crisis are a case in point where the country's decision to make an abrupt shift away from coal has cost it dearly. However, a balance will have to be reached sooner than later.
On the mitigation front, India has been a late starter. It was only after the devastating heat waves of 2010 that the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) pressed cities to prepare heat action plans (HAPs) with NGOs and civil society. Twelve years from then, the country is still struggling to formulate and implement effective HAPs.
Heat action plans are basically aimed at community outreach and creating awareness among the masses, training health professionals and equipping them with the right resources to deal with affected persons and setting an early warning system in place. The HAPs, if implemented properly, have the potential to stave off a large proportion of the heatwave externalities. It is high time that governments turn their eyes in this direction. In addition, governments should cover the extra mile to build potable water systems and shelters across the cities. Public drinking water facilities need to be restored in small and big towns. Packaged mineral water, sold in shops, may not be an affordable option for those with a low socio-economic profile. Drinking water facilities at close intervals are a must to prevent people from getting dehydrated.
However, most importantly, before focussing on adaptation and mitigation, NDMA should recognise heat waves as a national disaster. It should also, at the same time, make efforts to redefine heat waves through the lens of wet-bulb temperature rather than absolute temperature. The problem has come knocking at our doorsteps. Further delay in tackling them will prove to be detrimental.
Views expressed are personal