In 2020, a global weather monitoring website, gingerly named El Dorado, came up with some startling findings.
It said that out of the 15 hottest cities in the world in May that year, 10 were in India while the others were in neighbouring Pakistan, which is hardly a surprise. South Asia may be the worst-hit by soaring temperatures.
That year, Banda in UP and Hisar in Haryana recorded extreme temperatures of 48 degrees Celsius. The others on the list of hottest cities were capital New Delhi at 47.6 degrees Celsius, Bikaner at 47.4 degrees Celsius, Ganganagar at 47 degrees Celsius, Jhansi at 47 degrees Celsius, Pilani at 46.9 degrees Celsius, Nagpur Sonegaon at 46.8 degrees Celsius and Akola 46.5 degrees Celsius—both in Maharashtra.
True to climate change conditions, in 2022, India experienced the hottest March in the last 122 years! The unseasonal heat wave across north and central India contributed to making March 2022 the hottest ever since record keeping began in 1901.
As per the data released by the India Meteorological Department (IMD), the average temperature in March was 33.1°C, breaking the previous record of 33.09°C of 2010. The advance formation of strong anti-cyclonic circulation along with scanty rainfall in north and central India in the absence of western disturbances resulted in record-breaking heatwaves in India.
Clearly, the repetition of heat waves and the resulting mortality have soared. Its impact has been such that government agencies and research organisations are developing city-specific action plans to mitigate heat impacts. They may not have a choice.
The trigger for such action came in the summer of 2010, when temperatures rose to 46.8°C in Ahmedabad, Gujarat’s capital, which led to an estimated death toll of 1,300 in just a month!
It prompted scientists from National Research Development Corporation (NRDC), the Indian Institute of Public Health (IIPH), Gandhinagar, the India Meteorological Department (IMD) and officials from the Amdavad Municipal Corporation to develop India’s first heat action plan (HAP) specifically tailored for a city in 2013. Ahmedabad’s HAP became the first template in India and South Asia.
According to the NRDC, a study estimated that Ahmedabad avoided approximately 1,190 deaths a year after implementing its HAP in 2013.
The result was a comprehensive HAP enunciated by the government in conjunction with state governments in 2015.
According to an NRDC paper entitled `Expanding Heat Resilience Across India: Heat Action Plan Highlights 2022’, NDMA and IMD have been working with 23 out of India’s 28 states identified as heat wave prone.
Early warning systems
"The Plan includes early-warning systems, colour-coded temperature alerts, community outreach programmes, capacity-building networks among government and health professionals for preparedness and reducing exposure, and staggered or reduced timings for schools and factories,” former director general of IMD KG Ramesh told Moneycontrol.
He adds: "It has worked on the ground successfully. The number of deaths has come down. State governments are deeply involved. Karnataka government offices in nine districts will remain open from 8 am to 1.30 pm in April and May, owing to extreme heat conditions. In Telangana, in some cases, maternity wards have been brought down from top storeys to the ground level to avoid the blistering heat. The same is being implemented in many states across the land."
HAPs are comprehensive extreme heat warning systems and preparedness plans. Key objectives include public awareness and community outreach and facilitating interagency coordination.
That way, neonatal deaths have been controlled with the help of the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), which works in coordination with state disaster management agencies (SDMA), who in turn alert districts, to take the steps needed.
How does one ensure that deaths – particularly in this pandemic age - is due to heat? Ramesh says it is the municipal doctors who issue certificates and are authorised to spell out the reasons for the mortality.
Last month, the NDMA held a virtual national workshop on prevention, preparedness, mitigation and management of heat waves. The annual workshop brought together academic researchers, policy makers, national-level ministries, non-governmental organisations, inter-governmental organisations, state governments and others to tackle heart-related matters.
Two in-depth studies
The NDMA is currently supporting two studies in India to strengthen adaptation and build community-level resistance to extreme heat. The first study is working to identify and map the exposure of vulnerable populations to extreme heat to enable targeted approaches to reach people. The Indian Institute of Public Health Hyderabad (IIPHH) is conducting the study in two cities, Hyderabad and Kolkata across representational climatic conditions and expects it to conclude its findings in 2022.
The second study supported by the NDMA is assessing the effectiveness of India’s HAPs and reviewing international best practices, which are best applied on ground.
In its preliminary findings, this study has identified that the lack of focus on hot spot-based interventions as well as changes in land-use planning and implementation of HAPs are major shortcomings. The finding of both the studies will then be incorporated in the heat action planning activities of the NDMA and SDMAs.
The big challenge is to identify populations susceptible to heat – like close to 35 percent of the Indian population, as assessed by the World Bank, living in urban slums with heat generating tin roofs over their heads – and improving granular identification and mapping of vulnerable groups in consultation with appropriate communications strategy.
Communication here is the key. Says Dileep Mavlankar, head of the Indian Institute of Public Health Gandhinagar, Gujarat, and among India’s best known public health specialists: "Wide publicity needs to be given to rising temperatures so that the people at large can prepare in advance. ‘’
According to him, deaths need to be monitored and hospitals kept in readiness, because what’s being witnessed is just the beginning of the hazards of climate change -- the situation could get worse with heat waves rising to unmanageable levels.
"The IMD Safar, for example, has this information on its apps, but people need to be made aware of it, just like political parties highlight their achievements with full-page ads,” Mavlankar told Moneycontrol.
That towns and cities are hit by a serious water crisis compounds the plight and there remains little doubt that municipalities must be empowered on a larger scale, instead of being staffed with out-of-favour officials.Clearly, enormous challenges lie ahead - as do the long summer months. The central government is working with 23 heat wave prone states and over 130 districts to develop HAPs across various institutions. By any stretch of imagination, they have a job cut out for them.