Hotter, longer, deadlier summers

As climate change gathers pace, policy intervention is required across three sectors — health, water and power

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India’s romance with seasons has been well known since the times of Kalidasa’s Ritusamhara. But it is now under strain because of global climate change.

Climate change is expected to cause an increase in the frequency and intensity of heatwaves. For India, 2015 was the third hottest year on record (since 1901) and the heat claimed over 2,000 lives. This year, the India Meteorological Department (IMD) has issued warnings for northwest and central India (Rajasthan, Punjab, Haryana, eastern Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Odisha and Jharkhand) about heatwaves happening sooner than in previous years. Further, government schools have been shut down in Kolkata, parts of West Bengal, Odisha, and Madhya Pradesh on account of heatwaves.

Adverse health outcomes (hospitalisations or death) are a complex interaction of frequency, duration and intensity of a heatwave and population-level factors, which include acclimatisation to the temperature profile of certain geography, poverty, lack of shelter, pre-existing disease, age (children or elderly) and access to health facilities. In addition to heat stroke, extreme temperatures can exacerbate pre-existing cardiovascular and respiratory illness.

The days ahead

A joint study by the Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW), Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad and Indian Institute of Technology Gandhinagar found that about 345 districts in India (700 million people) are following a trajectory where average temperatures are likely to rise more than 2°C by the end of the century. The same study also finds that over the next three decades, India may experience increase in annual mean air temperatures of 1°C-1.5°C and substantial increases in night-time temperatures. Higher night-time temperatures are correlated with increased incidence of heat-related illness.

Findings from the first Global Climate Change Risk Assessment (a joint study by CEEW, Harvard University, Tsinghua University and the U.K. Foreign and Commonwealth Office) highlight that hotter summers make it extremely unsafe for citizens, especially labourers, to undertake heavy outdoor work. Of course, there remain associated impacts such as higher risks of crop failure. Concomitant consequences of farmer financial distress, poverty traps and, in extreme cases, suicides cannot be overstated.

Adaptation measures

If hotter, longer and deadlier summers are to be the new normal under a changing climate, proactive adaptation measures are required. This implies policy intervention and coordination across three sectors — health, water and power.

First, scale up heat-health warning systems (HHWS). At their core, such warning systems include providing weather forecasts in advance, issuing warnings to people, providing readiness of emergency response systems, and preparing doctors and health facilities to handle a sudden influx of patients. Warnings facilitate people in taking appropriate actions against heat-related harm. Though the IMD does issue heat warnings, often the coordination with emergency response systems and health facilities is missing.

 Globally, studies show that implementing HHWS results in fewer deaths. The most quoted example is that of France where 4,400 deaths were avoided due to HHWS during the 2006 heatwave. Closer home, Ahmedabad, Nagpur and Odisha have made pioneering efforts in this direction. These systems need to be expanded to other cities across the country.

Second, expedite the rollout of the National Action Plan on Climate Change and Health that was launched last year. Preventing temperature-related morbidity and mortality could be a key programme under this mission.

Third, ensure an adequate supply of water. Dehydration is a key outcome of heat exposure which can cascade into life-threatening conditions and ultimately death. Timely access to drinking water can help mitigate this escalation. In areas where heat extremes coincide with water scarcity, the risk of heat-related illness remains highest. Areas like Latur, Osmanabad and Beed, which are already experiencing acute water shortages, could face large casualties if hit by heatwaves. Water is also required for electricity production that helps provide access to cooler environments through use of fans and air conditioners. Therefore, strategic planning in the water sector is of paramount importance to protect human lives.

Fourth, provide reliable electricity for adequate duration. Access to cool environments remains the mainstay of preventing heat stress. Use of fans, air conditioners or functioning of medical centres is contingent upon electricity supply. Further, many communities depend on electricity to draw groundwater for drinking. This requires planning to meet peak loads in summer, when power outages are most common. In rural areas, where electricity access is a challenge, supplementing power supply of primary health centres with solar-based systems should be undertaken. Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra and Tripura have already deployed such systems.

Finding policy alignment and coordination across these sectors remains a daunting, yet much needed exercise. The romance of the seasons may be lost in the years to come. Lives need not be.

Hem H. Dholakia is a Research Associate at CEEW, a not-for-profit policy research institution in New Delhi. Email: hem.dholakia@ceew.in. This article was originally published at The Hindu)