NEW DELHI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – As summer high temperatures rise as a result of climate shifts, the western Indian city of Ahmedabad has put together a pioneering “heat action plan” to protect residents.
In 2010, a heat wave in the city in Gujarat state killed 300 people in a single day, with temperatures hitting a high of 48.6 degrees Celsius. The new plan aims to help vulnerable people take steps to reduce their exposure to extreme heat, as well improve the readiness of municipal agencies and medical services during summers, so that loss of life is minimised.
According to Anjali Jaiswal, director of the India Initiative of the US-based National Resources Defence Council (NRDC), which helped to formulate the plan, Ahmedabad is the first city in South Asia to take such a step.
“There are a handful of developed countries that have such plans,” said Dr Dileep Mavalankar, head of the Indian Institute of Public Health (IIPH) in Gandhinagar, the capital of Gujarat. “Such plans are now in place in cities in Australia (and) the U.S. state of California, and the NHS (National Health Service) in Britain has put this in place as well.”
Ahmedabad’s plan aims to use pamphlets and other mass communication tools such as billboards to raise awareness of the dangers of extreme heat among children, people who work outdoors and other vulnerable population groups, especially people who live in the slums. Slumdwellers make up about a quarter of Ahmedabad’s seven million residents, according to Jaiswal.
EARLY WARNING, MORE WATER
There will be an early-warning system to alert the public to impending heat waves, and instructions to take shelter from extreme heat and to drink more water. Training is also to be provided to medical professionals, and to outreach workers in slums.
The IIPH and NRDC have held four rounds of meetings with the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation (AMC), which will implement the plan.
Mavalankar said that the AMC is working to increase the limited public water supply to deliveries twice a day when heat waves are declared, rather than once, and to keep city parks open during the afternoons so that people can seek shade there.
Designated emergency wards have been set aside, with air conditioning and supplies of cold water, and all leave for doctors will be cancelled if a heat wave is declared, according to the IIPH chief.
Local businesses have agreed to sponsor the installation of electronic signboards across the city to give current temperature readings, Mavalankar said, adding that until now the official temperature reading for the city has been based on the meteorological station at the airport, which is cooler because it is surrounded by open areas.
“Within the city it is much hotter ... due to close clusters of buildings emanating heat,” Mavalankar said.
Gulrez Azhar, a senior lecturer at IIPH, said that in countries like India, the official count of deaths from heat waves often understates the real toll, because people without a family or who are homeless may not be taken to hospitals, where their deaths would be officially registered.
Mavalankar added that the official death toll of heatstroke sufferers in 2010 did not include some newborns, nor some elderly people who nonetheless doubtless died of heat-induced cardiac arrest, he said.
The plan also seeks to improve coordination between municipal, state and national government agencies.
“Our heat action plan provides the roadmap we need to save lives when the next dangerous heat wave hits,” AMC Commissioner Guruprasad Mohapatra said.
Some observers said they hope the effort will be expanded to other areas of Gujarat, including communities that can be even hotter than Ahmedabad in the summer.
“There are other very vulnerable areas in this state, such as the naturally parched Kutch area, where heat-caused fatalities could be even more serious,” said Suresh Patel, owner of the state-wide CNN-Gujarat newspaper. “But it is good to start with a controlled plot of a major city in the state to see if this kind of intervention works.”
Jaiswal commented, “Our first priority is the people of Ahmedabad, and they need to be protected from the impacts of climate change.”
The launch of the Heat Action Plan is part of a broader collaboration dating back to early 2011 between AMC and public health and policy experts at several health and academic institution in India and the United States, as well as the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Climate and Development Knowledge Network.
UNIQUE IN INDIA
Although Ahmedabad’s plan is unique in India, statistics suggest that it is not the only city that could benefit from it. Churu, a desert city in neighbouring Rajasthan state, is accustomed to temperatures of as much as 50 Celsius on summer days.
While the temperature in 2010 in Ahmedabad hit 46.8 Celsius – almost six degrees higher than the average summer maximum over the past decade – Delhi recorded a maximum of around 49 Celsius on June 9, 2007.
“We have programmes in place for night shelters (during cold winter weather) for the weaker sections of society, but there is no Heat Action Plan,” said Ajay Sharma, a public relations officer at the New Delhi Municipal Corporation.
However, the nation’s capital has taken steps to moderate its local climate, including tree-planting drives which have increased the city’s green cover to around 20 percent, the highest in the world after Nairobi.
Other elements of Delhi’s environmental engineering include a requirement that all new buildings have their roofs painted white; spraying water on plants along the streets; and increasing the number of road-side cold-water taps and fountains in public places.
As India becomes rapidly more urbanised, experts foresee an urgent need to address the growing impacts of climate change on the weather, particularly in cities.
“Climate changes are creating ‘heat islands’, which are more or less localised in extreme concentration of urban populations,” said Mavalankar.
“Unbearable temperatures are already having a deadly impact in Ahmedabad, and it’s only going to get worse due to climate change,” said Jaiswal. “By building awareness, training health professionals, and implementing a coordinated heat plan, Ahmedabad is showing other at-risk regions the way forward.”
Sujit Chakraborty is a science and environmental journalist based in New Delhi.
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