Eastern India cools the risks from extreme heat

by Manipadma Jena | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 26 May 2011 11:48 GMT

Efforts to reduce disaster risk that are focused on the poor are changing life in Bhubaneswar

BHUBANESWAR, India (AlertNet) – As in most years since 1998, heat wave warnings have been issued for many parts of the east Indian state of Orissa. But the threat no longer disturbs 60-year old Rukuni Naik’s rest.

The government of this Orissan city recently replaced Naik’s mud and thatch home with one made of bricks and mortar. An electric connection and a ceiling fan are due to follow shortly.

“The municipality officer said there shall not be a single mud house in Bhubaneswar,” says Naik. Mud houses are liable to collapse in heavy rains and thatched roofs are fire hazards in summer.

Like many parts of Orissa, Bhubaneswar has experienced natural disasters including extreme heat and cold, cyclones and floods, earthquakes, hailstorms and lightning strikes. Some are becoming worse as a result of climate change, experts say.

In 1999 a “super-cyclone” battered Orissa for 30 hours with wind speeds reaching 300 km per hour and claimed 10,000 lives across the state. Bhubaneswar spent a week without basic services such as electricity, water, sanitation, health care, and communication and transport systems.

The super-cyclone served as a warning bell for the city government, which developed a disaster management infrastructure over the next decade. Now the city’s disaster plans cover not only irregular occurrences like cyclones but more predictable phenomena such as heat waves, which can also prove deadly.

GROWING HEAT WAVES

Bhubaneswar faces extreme heat nearly every summer. In 1998, the mercury rose to an unprecedented 46 degrees Celsius (115 Fahrenheit) during a heat wave that claimed 123 lives among an unprepared citizenry.

Surendranath Pasupalak, an agro-meteorologist at Orissa University of Agriculture and Technology, blames the city’s increasingly hot weather on climate change.

 “Through the 1970s, summers saw an average of one day above 40C. The 1980s saw none, while the 1990s saw two days. The 2000s saw an average of nine days above 40C every single summer,” Pasupalak said.

Since 1998, however, Bhubaneswar has suffered fewer than seven heat-related deaths a year in all but two years.

FIGHTING BACK

That’s because the city now responds to heat waves by modifying office and school hours and summer vacations, as well as the working hours of daily wage workers, who mostly work in the open, so that they avoid exposure to the noonday sun.

Community participation also plays a role. Private citizens put out huge earthen pots of cool water at the roadside for wayfarers. Their efforts supplement those of the municipality, which has installed around 1,000 bore wells in slums to replace dried-up wells.

Young people volunteer in activities including Orissa Disaster Preparedness Day, held annually on October 29, the anniversary of the super-cyclone. Municipal corporations, NGOs and industries have participated in awareness activities, and disaster management is a study course in educational institutions. Women’s self-help collectives are being trained to administer emergency first aid in slums.

As a result, even the least educated know of precautions to take against heat stroke.

“We must keep moist washcloths on our heads, drink plenty of water and avoid the noon sun,” says Pramila Behera, a 40-year-old construction worker.

“Scientific knowledge and technology alone cannot counter disasters. First responders are (crucial). Their awareness and training are the single most important factor in limiting loss,” said Mayor Ananta Narayan Jena. 

But medical assistance also is available when needed. In the city’s air-conditioned Heat Stress Disorder Management Room, 62-year-old gardener Madhab Sahoo is being attended to by the doctor on duty. His daughter, Mamata Palei, says, “All we could have done at home is fanned him and bathed his head. Here he gets expert help.”

Bhubaneswar’s model for disaster preparedness has been replicated in other disaster-prone Indian states. The city was one of six finalists for the 2011 United Nations Sasakawa Award for Disaster Risk Reduction administered by the U.N. International Strategy for Disaster Reduction, and was awarded a Certificate of Distinction by the agency in Geneva in May.

The award is designed to stimulate wider application of the Hyogo Framework for Action, the U.N.’s key instrument for implementing disaster risk reduction.

“Risk reduction remains the core of Bhubaneswar’s development vision,” says Piyush Ranjan Rout, an urban management practitioner and co-founder of Local Governance Network, an NGO that nominated the city for the Sasakawa Award.

UPGRADING SLUMS

“Slum upgrading is our major focus now to reduce disaster risks,” says Mayor Jenna, referring to programmes such as the one that replaced Rukuni Naik’s hut with a brick house.

One third of Bhubaneswar’s rapidly growing population of 1.2 million lives in the city’s nearly 400 slums. Rapid urban development is often counter to the needs of poor people, but Bhubaneswar is different, according to Dilip Satapathy of Business Standard newspaper.

“The specialty of Bhubaneswar’s growth is that it takes the poor along,” says Satapathy.

Manipadma Jena is a freelance development journalist based in Bhubaneswar, India.

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