Vulnerable to rise in temperature, India needs to take heatwave seriously

Andhra Pradesh and Telangana are likely to see intense heatwave once every decade instead of once every century, according to a study.
India counts among heat stroke deaths only those deaths medically certified as having been caused by direct exposure to the sun, thereby capturing only 10 per cent of the real figure, leaving out deaths due to high ambient temperature. Accurate reporting is essential to create informed policies to build resilience, at a time when India is grappling with increasingly intense and frequent heat waves and is vulnerable to rising temperatures due to climate change, experts say.

Heatwaves killed about 6,167 people in India over eight years to 2018. Of that, government records show, 34 per cent (2,081 deaths) were in 2015, the year that saw one of the world’s five deadliest heat waves on record.

India also does not recognise heat waves as a disaster under its disaster management law, thereby cutting it off from the government’s disaster response fund, experts said, adding that this needs to change—the money is essential not only for relief but for building resilience, part of which involves creating early warning infrastructure.

A heatwave is defined differently for varying topographies. In the plains, the maximum temperature has to be 40°C or above; in coastal areas 37°C or more; and in hill regions 30°C or higher, according to the India Meteorological Department, which provides heat-wave forecasts for more than 300 cities. In India, heatwave conditions are usually experienced between March and July, with acute heatwaves occurring mostly between April and June.

Currently, parts of Rajasthan are under heatwave alert, though this year the temperatures have been relatively lower than in preceding years. About 100 cities and 23 state governments have partnered with the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) to develop Heat Action Plans (HAP) as adaptation measures for extreme heat events. The first Heat Action Plan was launched in 2013 by the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation, which went on to become a template for other regions.

However, for these action plans and warning systems to be effective, India needs to invest far more than what has been done to date. “There are not enough resources available to build resilience against heatwaves because they are not recognised under the National Disaster Management Act, 2005, making them ineligible for money from national or state disaster response funds,” said Chandra Bhushan, president and CEO of the International Forum for Environment, Sustainability and Technology (iFOREST), a Delhi-based think-tank.

Unlike other extreme weather events, heatwaves last much longer and have a protracted impact. A cyclone usually impacts a region for a day but heatwaves could last for up to 15. “That is why money is needed to provide relief to the affected and for additional investment in adaptation measures,” Bhushan told IndiaSpend. “This investment needs to come from the home ministry’s National Disaster Response Fund as it is the only fund in the country dedicated to deal with climate change fallout.”

Heat-related deaths are a crucial factor in determining adaptation policy but they are grossly under-reported in India. Heat stroke deaths can be classified as direct deaths (due to exertion under direct sunlight) and indirect or non-exertional deaths (people who suffer a heat stroke due to high ambient temperature—such as those trapped inside homes with high room temperatures). Indirect deaths are noticed mostly among old people with comorbidities, said Dileep Mavalankar, director of the Indian Institute of Public Health (IIPH), the country’s first public health university in Gandhinagar. 

“If you just look for medically certified heat stroke deaths, they account for only 10 per cent of total deaths due to heatwaves. That’s because they only record easily recognisable direct deaths. Heatwave deaths are like an iceberg... 90 per cent [which are indirect deaths] is not visible,” Mavalankar told IndiaSpend.

Compensation is an important reason for underreporting of heat stroke deaths. In states where families of heat stroke victims are compensated, authorities use a narrow definition and description of the circumstances of death, thereby recording only direct deaths.

Availability for municipal ward and city-level morbidity and mortality statistics is still one of India’s biggest challenges. “In many cases, these [statistics] might be partially collected but they are not collated, rendering them unusable for better modelling and planning in terms of HAPs,” said Polash Mukerjee, programme lead for air quality and climate resilience at Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) India, an international environmental advocacy group.

India also needs capacity building in frontline medical and emergency health services. For example, the Ahmedabad HAP contains a component for training municipal health workers and other medical personnel in identifying symptoms of heat stress as well as other heat-related illnesses, Mukerjee added.

Although favourable weather conditions have kept the country cooler this year, on average for six years to 2019, India has had 114 days of heatwave conditions every year. There was only one major heatwave event over central and northwestern parts of India, which is prone to heatwaves, said Madhavan Rajeevan, an atmospheric scientist and secretary at the Ministry of Earth Sciences. “This year heatwaves have been a little subdued but we can expect heatwaves over northwest India in June,” Rajeevan told IndiaSpend.

Extreme temperatures and heatwaves are set to increase due to the changing climate. As global CO2 (carbon dioxide) emissions continue to rise, heatwaves are likely to become more frequent and more intense, according to an October 2018 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the United Nations body set up to assess climate science. 

The annual average temperature in India has risen by 2°C over 200 years till 2006. It is predicted to rise further by 1.5°-2°C by 2030. In 50 years, 1.2 billion people in India would live in areas as hot as the Sahara, if greenhouse gas emissions keep rising.

A growing percentage of India’s population is getting exposed to heatwaves as the average duration of a heatwave has increased by 150 per cent, from two days in 2012 to almost five days in 2016. In 2012, just under 20 million people were exposed to heatwaves compared to 60 million in 2016, a 200 per cent increase, IndiaSpend reported in November 2018.

Scientists, who studied India’s 2015 heatwave, concluded that vulnerable regions including Andhra Pradesh and Telangana were likely to see intense heatwaves once every decade instead of once every century.

While India’s policies target cities, India’s poorest areas are most vulnerable to heatwaves. People living in underdeveloped parts of central India are most vulnerable to the health impacts of heatwaves, according to the Heat Vulnerability Index for India, IndiaSpend reported in May 2017.

In 2016, after the success of Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation’s heat action plan, the NDMA prepared guidelines for state governments to formulate action plans for prevention and management of heatwaves. These are based on four key strategies: forecasting heatwaves and enabling an early warning system, building capacity of healthcare professionals to deal with heatwave-related emergencies, community outreach through various media, and inter-agency cooperation as well as engagement with other civil society organisations in the region.

However, limited resources are hindering the adoption and roll-outs of these plans in several cities. “While some cities have emerged as a model for others, a much wider implementation of these HAPs is needed along with a robust institutional mechanism for building long-term community-level resilience,” said Mukerjee of NRDC. NRDC has been involved in the conceptualisation of India’s HAP strategy. 

Making HAPs more robust also makes economic sense, studies show. India is projected to lose 5.8 per cent of working hours in 2030, a productivity loss equivalent to 34 million full-time jobs, either because it would be too hot to work or because workers would have to work at a slower pace, impacting the agriculture and construction sectors in particular, predicted a 2019 International Labour Organization report.

“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,” said the report.

The impact of heat stress is not limited to sectors where employees are directly exposed to sunlight. Small industries, such as cloth-weaving units, which cannot afford air-conditioning, are also vulnerable to production losses due to a rise in temperatures, found a 2018 study prepared by the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago, a think-tank.

For every 1°C rise in temperature beyond 27°C on a hot day in India, productivity of workers drops by as much as 4 per cent, said the study.

Reprinted with permission from Indiaspend, a data-driven  non-for-profit organisation

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