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The best way to to protect poorer people from extreme heat is to boost incomes and access to services, experts say
The spectre of increased killer heatwaves in a warming world threatens to deepen the divide between those who can afford to stay cool and the poorest who are likely to be left sweltering, experts are warning.
Rolling out early warning systems advising people how to cope with sizzling temperatures may be a simple short-term solution. But boosting incomes and access to basic services is the best way to reduce the health impacts of heat and otherwise inevitable deaths, speakers told a discussion hosted by Zilient.
"Heat is a very big... inequality issue," splitting societies between those who can afford to buy and run air-conditioning and those who cannot, said Gulrez Shah Azhar, a policy researcher with the RAND Corporation, a non-profit think tank.
As global temperatures rise, climate scientists predict heatwaves will become more frequent, intense and longer-lasting - bringing with them a dramatic hike in premature deaths, especially in countries near the Equator.
Recent heatwaves in the northern hemisphere have offered a glimpse for many of what could become a frightening new reality, with dozens of deaths registered from Japan to Canada, and lethal forest fires in Greece.
Yet despite the widespread impacts of rising heat, the phenomenon tends to be overshadowed by more commonly recognised weather disasters such as floods and droughts, the panel noted.
As a result, little funding is being funnelled into finding solutions.
Muthukumara Mani, South Asia lead economist for the World Bank, said recent research by the organisation showed temperatures in much of the region had already risen by up to 1.53 degrees Celsius over the past 50 years.
Living standards are predicted to fall by 2050 for much of South Asia, where almost half the population, or more than 800 million people, live in areas set to become "climate hot-spots", if the world fails to meet an agreed goal of limiting global temperature rise to "well below" 2C above pre-industrial times.
Most of those hot-spots are concentrated in inland areas home to subsistence farmers struggling to grow crops amid extreme weather and lacking access to public services.
Packing up and moving is hardly an option for many, so making people more resilient to climate shocks is the best strategy, Mani said.
Ways to achieve that include better education and access to markets and electric power, as well as a shift away from climate-vulnerable traditional agriculture, he added.
"In the long term, we find the best solutions for these countries will be to grow, develop - and that itself will build resilience across the board," he said.
Azhar, whose research has mapped vulnerability to heat in India, said those without access to key services such as electricity and running water are among the most exposed.
In the sprawling slums that accommodate half of Mumbai's households, women are particularly at risk, as they often work in homes without indoor water and sanitation, and cook with smokey fuels in poorly ventilated rooms.
While heatwave-linked deaths are hard to track, chronic exposure to high temperatures also brings a long list of health problems, from immune disease to cognitive damage, Azhar said.
With cities also suffering from the "urban heat island" effect, planners in Asia and Africa cannot afford to ignore the ramifications of rising temperatures on their booming populations, said Julie Arrighi, urban and disaster risk manager at the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre.
"That foundational information of heat risks, tied with our projections of what will happen with climate change, will become really critical in ensuring cities as they grow now are considering future heat extremes in their urban planning," she said.
Planting trees, painting roofs white, planting gardens on top of buildings and turning schoolyards into urban oases can help lower city temperatures and keep people cool.
Meanwhile innovative designs such as water-cooled jackets for construction workers could offer some protection to labourers in blazing temperatures, the webinar heard.
Better healthcare is crucial, along with local rather than imported solutions, said speakers, noting Delhi sets up tents to distribute water in heatwaves while some Indian cities have organised "flash mobs" to advise people on how to cope.
More research on how households cope with extreme heat might also help cash-strapped governments to craft better policies to tackle higher temperatures - and avoid an increasingly deadly toll.
"Heat is not seen for the threat it poses," said Azhar.
Reporting by Sophie Hares; editing by Megan Rowling.
The Thomson Reuters Foundation is reporting on resilience as part of its work on zilient.org, an online platform building a global network of people interested in resilience, in partnership with The Rockefeller Foundation.
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