Beating the heat wave

Beating the heat wave

Beating the heat wave. Andhra Pradesh and Telangana which have been witnessing intense heat waves this week may see a likely respite due to onset of monsoon.

Andhra Pradesh and Telangana which have been witnessing intense heat waves this week may see a likely respite due to onset of monsoon. But, the experience of this summer should be an occasion to reflect on public policy on these killer heat waves as the two States saw a record number of deaths.

Though it is difficult to assess the impact of heat waves on the economy as a whole, estimates suggest that the poultry industry alone suffered a loss of over Rs 100 crore due to high bird mortality. The loss of livelihood opportunities, work hours, productivity of the labour in unorganised sectors is difficult to be computed.

But, a rough estimate suggests that the loss would be definitely high. The poor and the vulnerable are the most affected due to killer heat waves. In fact, the mortality is mainly due to accompanying factors like poor or no housing facilities, lack of drinking water, inevitable exposure to heat at work places etc.

According to researchers from the New Delhi-based research and advocacy organisation, Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), in the worst-affected States of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, maximum temperatures have hovered around a searing 45 degrees Celsius. A heat wave is declared when the temperature is five degrees or more than the average temperature recorded on that particular day over the last three decades.

Cities feel the brunt of the elevated temperatures, because of the magnified effect of paved surfaces and a lack of tree cover – this is known as the “urban heat island effect.’ Urban heat island effects can make ambient temperatures feel 3 to 4 degrees more than what they are, reports CSE.

The National disaster Management Authority (NDMA) defines a heat wave as a period of abnormally high temperatures, more than the normal maximum temperature that occurs during the summer season. The extreme temperatures and resultant atmospheric conditions adversely affect people as they cause physiological stress, sometimes resulting in death.

The health impacts of heat waves typically involve dehydration, heat cramps, heat exhaustion and/or heat stroke. Thus killer heat waves prove to be a public health challenge, too. Earlier, in a heat wave in 2003, the death toll on Andhra Pradesh had touched 3,000 (official records downplay the figures), reports Down To Earth, the journal of CSE.

In the same year, a committee of scientists, C V V Bhadram, B V S Amatya, K Krishna Kumar and G B Panth, was appointed by the State government to conduct a study on the severe heat wave conditions in the State. They found that the severe heat wave experienced in recent times had shifted from the interior parts of Andhra Pradesh to coastal areas.

Strong and hot, dry winds from the interior of the State had contributed to the overall increase in temperatures in the State. The heat wave period too has increased from seven days to 19 days. The committee observed that since 1990, the severity of heat waves has increased in the region, mostly due to local atmospheric changes.

Referring to the governments’ response to the disaster, The Economic and Political weekly in its editorial (May 30, 2015) – India's Killer Heat Waves – states: “It is rather odd and verging on mockery for the authorities to urge people to stay indoors for several hours, drink plenty of water (and buttermilk), wear only cotton clothes and so on.

Just how are daily wage labourers, drivers of non-air-conditioned vehicles, delivery services’ personnel, workers in industrial units where high temperatures are a constant, the homeless and the destitute to follow this ‘well-intentioned’ advice?” Despite the recommendation from the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) as early as 2013 to recognise heat waves as a natural disaster, the governments are yet to respond.

Still, governments can take adaptation measures to mitigate the impact of heat waves. This is much more essential as the gravity of the problem is likely to increase due to global warming and reckless plunder of environmental resources. Such adaptation measures can include long-term and short-term ones.

Containing green house gases emissions, reducing industrial and vehicular pollution, massive increase in the green cover, preservation of water bodies, forests and other forms of green cover etc. can be the long-term measures. The work schedules of people can be adjusted to prevent undue exposure to heat. The accompanying vulnerabilities like lack of housing, poverty, lack of nutritional security should be addressed to prevent morbidity and mortality due to heat wave.

The Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation designed an action plan to mitigate the impact of heat wave and has been implementing it from 2013 onwards. This plan was updated in 2015. The plan was drawn up by the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation, the Indian Institute of Public Health, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Georgia Institute of Technology – last two are from the United States.

It involves disseminating public information about risks and mitigating measures, establishing a warning system including what-to-do measures for governmental agencies, training of health professionals to respond quickly and effectively, and adapting the city’s infrastructure to deal with extreme temperatures. The Andhra Pradesh and the Telangana governments can also study and emulate these experiences.

The 2015 Heat Action Plan is an updated version of the first comprehensive early warning system and preparedness plan for extreme heat events in India. It was launched in Ahmedabad in 2013. It aims to implement four key strategies:

• Building Public Awareness and Community Outreach to communicate the risks of heat waves and implement practices to prevent heat-related deaths and illnesses. Disseminating public messages on how to protect people against extreme heat through media outlets and informational materials such as pamphlets and advertisements on heat stress prevention. New efforts being launched as part of this year’s Plan include use of modern media such as SMS, text messages, email, radio and mobile applications such as WhatsApp. Special efforts will be made to reach vulnerable populations through inter-personal communication as well as other outreach methods.

• Initiating an Early Warning System and Inter-Agency Coordination to alert residents of predicted high and extreme temperatures. The AMC has created formal communication channels to alert governmental agencies, the Met Centre, health officials and hospitals, emergency responders, local community groups, and media outlets of forecasted extreme temperatures.

• Capacity Building Among Health Care Professionals to recognise and respond to heat-related illnesses, particularly during extreme heat events. Such trainings focus on primary medical officers and other paramedical staff, and community health staff so they can effectively prevent and manage heat-related cases so as to reduce mortality and morbidity.

• Reducing Heat Exposure and Promoting Adaptive Measures by launching new efforts including mapping of high-risk areas of the city, increasing outreach and communication on prevention methods, access to potable drinking water and cooling spaces during extreme heat days. Collaboration with non-governmental organisations is also identified as a means to expand outreach and communication with the city’s most at-risk communities.

CSE climate researchers say more heat waves are expected as globally temperatures had risen by an average 0.8 degrees in the past 100 years. Night time temperatures are rising, too. The number of heat wave days may go up from about 5 to between 30 and 40 every year. There is also enough evidence of extreme weather events being on the rise. Additionally, owing to the rising temperatures, ultra violet (UV) rays are emerging as a serious menace to people’s health.

The UN-based World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) warns that Andhra Pradesh and Telangana are facing a serious challenge due to high incidence of UV radiation. The rise in night temperatures is leading to crop losses, says Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO). The society and the governments should rise to the occasion and implement climate adaptation measures as part of disaster mitigation strategies.

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