Earth Day: Of ‘Heat Action Plans’ and Hot Air

A World Bank report forecast that India could well become one of the first places in the world where ‘wet-bulb temperatures’ go beyond the human survivability threshold of 35 degree Celsius WBT

Representative Image (Getty Image)
Representative Image (Getty Image)

Rashme Sehgal

March 2022 was a scorcher — the hottest ever recorded in India since 1901. Heatwave conditions became more frequent, starting earlier (in February) and lasting longer. One year later, temperatures between 42 and 45 degrees Celsius have led to several states sounding an orange alert. It seems April is truly the cruellest month.

Heatwave conditions—which occur when the mercury climbs above 40 degrees in the plains—can last for several days, even weeks. While hospitals report receiving more patients suffering from dehydration, sunstrokes and heat strokes turn sudden and silent killers as bodies overheat and are unable to cool down, especially in conditions when both temperature and humidity are high. A World Bank report forecast that India could well become one of the first places in the world where ‘wet-bulb temperatures’ go beyond the human survivability threshold of 35 degree Celsius WBT.

WBT is a measure of heat-stress conditions on human beings. The term derives from the method of measurement. Sliding a wet cloth over the bulb of a thermometer will bring the temperature down— because the water evaporates. This lowered temperature is the WBT. While not fixed, it is generally considered to be 35 degree Celsius, which works out as equivalent to about 40 degree Celsius with a relative humidity of 75 per cent. ‘Critical’ WBT for humans is the point at which a healthy person cannot survive longer than six hours.

WBT helps us understand how rapid rises in body heat due to exposure to hotter-than-average conditions compromise the body’s ability to regulate temperature, resulting in cramps, exhaustion, heat stroke, and hyperthermia. It may also lead to cardiac arrests in the very young, the elderly, or those with comorbidities like diabetes.

With personal health and productivity being adversely affected, and concomitant losses to agriculture and the economy, there are alerts being sounded that the country is not prepared to deal with the crisis. As India braces for more heatwaves, this fear is more than well-founded. A World Bank report in November last year cautioned that around 34 million Indians could face job losses due to heat and stress-related decline in productivity. Paradoxically, while the poor and rural India continue to bear the brunt of the heat, the exponential growth in the demand for air-conditioners in cities will create business opportunities for some while adding hugely to greenhouse emissions.

India boasts of a Heatwave Action Plan (HAP). More than one plan in fact, as every state and city is expected to have one. The Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi identified 37 of them. At the most rudimentary level, the plan requires people to remain indoors between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. if the temperature exceeds 40 degrees in the plains, 37 degrees in coastal areas and 35 degrees in the foothills.

In light of this, consider that half a million people were forced to sit in the open last Sunday at the Maharashtra Bhushan Award function at Kharghar, Navi Mumbai to honour social reformer Appasaheb Dharmadhikari. The temperature was recorded at 42 degree Celsius. While Union home minister Amit Shah, chief minister Eknath Shinde and other dignitaries were seated under a specially constructed canopy with coolers and fans, the public sat unprotected in the sun for a function that began at 11.30 a.m. and continued past 2 p.m.

Heat action plan be damned. Reports tell us that people were seated in the open so that rose petals could be showered on them and photographs taken by drones. Drinking water was not at hand, being available only at a distance; and everyone had to walk a kilometre for ‘security reasons’.

The result? At least 13 people died that same day, the highest recorded toll due to heatwave at a single gathering.

Eight of these were over the age of fifty (being in the high-risk vulnerable category). Over 600 people suffered from heat stroke and had to be hospitalised. What is the point of having an action plan if even governments and ministers flout them?

Scientists at the India Meteorological Department (IMD) affirm that not only has India turned hotter over the last two decades, heatwaves have grown more intense, with longer durations and greater frequencies, thereby resulting in more deaths. Landmark heatwaves (1998, 2002, 2010, 2015, 2022) have seen labour productivity go down. Other fallouts of extended heatwaves are water shortage and increased consumption of electricity.

One of the main reasons for this surge is the El Nino along the Pacific coast of South America which adversely affects the Indian monsoon, bringing rainfall down and pushing temperatures up. IMD meteorologists warn of the likelihood of another El Nino phenomenon in 2023.

This view is in line with the findings of the fifth assessment report of the UN Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change. This latest report has also pointed out that the last three decades have been the warmest since scientists started keeping records in 1850. The primary culprit being carbon dioxide concentrations, which have increased 40 per cent since pre-industrial times.

While Prime Minister Narendra Modi is pushing for smart cities, the environmental consequences of thoughtless urbanisation are yet to be worked out. Cities are known to be heat-traps, thereby intensifying existing heatwave conditions. In 2010, a heatwave in the month of May had resulted in 800 deaths in the city of Ahmedabad alone.

Sadly, despite Modi’s high-level meeting earlier this month to review heatwave preparedness, an assessment done by the Centre for Policy Research (CPR), ‘How is India Adapting to Heatwaves?’ indicates that we are ill-equipped to face—leave alone beat—the heat.

CPR analysed 37 Heat Action Plans (HAPs) across 18 states to evaluate what policy action the different states had formulated to deal with the vulnerable sections, with particular emphasis on infants, pregnant women, the elderly and the sick. They found that most HAPs had little budgetary allocation, given that most municipalities are under-resourced.

The Navi Mumbai deaths reveal the hollow heart of the ‘Heat Action Plans’. Haphazard and hard to implement, they cannot claim to be a solution. Will other state governments find better ways to rise to the challenge?

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