Over the past two months, heat waves have relentlessly scorched South Asia. First, a heat wave swept India in May and killed more than 2,000 people in less than a month. Then, another searing heat wave struck Pakistan the following month, claiming over 1,000 lives. Across the region, tens of thousands of people suffered heat-related ailments such as fever and dehydration.
Studies predict more intense, more frequent, less predictable and longer lasting heat waves in the future as a result of climate change. Cities, particularly those in India, experience an added “urban heat island” effect—a condition in which urban areas become significantly hotter than their surrounding rural parts. These blazing spells can prove fatal to elderly people and children, as well as outdoor workers and the poor who have no means of refuge. Extremely hot weather may also reduce productivity, affecting both the take-home earnings of workers and overall economic competitiveness.
If cities are prepared, disruption doesn’t have to lead to devastation.
As part of overall resilience-building, a heat action plan can help cities better manage a heat event through awareness-raising, coordinated early warnings, and appropriate responses.
Ahmedabad, which in 2013 became the first city in India and South Asia to enact such a plan, recently proved how it works. Ahead of the last heat wave, city dwellers were informed of heat-related health risks and tips on how to minimize hazards. Once forecasted high temperatures reached a critical threshold, the early warning system issued alerts to Ahmedabad residents via text messaging and public announcements using broadcast and print media outlets. Alerts were also sent out to relevant governmental and non-governmental agencies, resulting in a coordinated response.
For example, labor authorities promptly provided water and shade to workers, and altered work shifts to cooler hours. Trained in early detection of heat-related symptoms, health workers were ready to provide proper care, storing ice packs in emergency rooms and ambulances.
Ahmedabad and other Indian cities like Surat, have taken steps to increase their resilience to shocks and stresses associated with heat and humidity, as part of their involvement in the Asian Cities Climate Change Resilience Network (ACCCRN), funded by The Rockefeller Foundation.
These examples illustrate the importance for cities of considering medium to longer term measures that bring in diverse groups of key stakeholders to ensure more cohesive actions.
- City leaders should be coordinating closely with disaster management and public health agencies and provide them with robust understanding of related risks and mitigation measures. This effort ensures that they are prepared to respond to crises in a quicker and more effective manner.
- Cities should also create effective heat wave forecasting mechanisms. Part of this requires disseminating scientific information in a way that is comprehensible to decision makers. With better information and more lead time, decision-makers can more adequately develop precautionary measures.
- Cities must consider strategies to address not just the shock events, but also the more gradual onsets such as the case of rising temperature.
One example involves applying low-cost solutions to reduce ambient indoor temperatures. Indian cities such as Indore, Surat and Gorakhpur have utilized experimental housing designs that lower indoor temperature through passive ventilation or maximize cross-ventilation and shade. These measures can reduce fatigue and cramps, and can, in the long term, increase comfort at home and productivity at work.
At the city-level, design can also play an important role in battling the heat island effect. Water bodies and green areas serve as major heat sinks for urban areas. As cities continue to grow and develop, policies and regulations that protect green space will be important for reducing the impacts of heat.
Beyond heat waves, Indian cities are facing other adversities caused by rapid urbanization, climate change and natural resource utilization. The efforts to prepare a city for the next heat wave will become even more valuable if used to cultivate or enhance the city’s resilience to other forms of shocks and stresses such as drought, flooding or power shortages.
In this era where crisis is the new normal, a city cannot afford to assume that the future will be the same as the past. Instead, cities need to develop multi-purpose measures that offer a range of benefits to residents, while remaining flexible enough to adjust to the unpredictable nature of shocks and stresses.