Urban heat is a hot topic. The February that just passed was the hottest on record in India since 1901, as per the India Meteorological Department (IMD). Some parts of India saw heatwaves as early as February. The IMD has already declared in a press release an “enhanced probability” of the occurrence of heat waves between March and May this year in many regions of central and northwest India. Heatwaves are now a global phenomenon.
By 2050, more than 970 cities will experience average summertime highs of 35˚C — nearly triple the 354 cities that already do. The urban population exposed to these sky-high temperatures will increase by 800%, reaching 1.6 billion by mid-century.
Cities are turning into ‘urban heat islands’
A team of researchers from the Centre for Oceans, Rivers, Atmosphere and Land Sciences (CORAL) of IIT-KGP and its Architecture and Regional Planning department showed that cities are turning into "urban heat islands" in all seasons during day and night.
The ‘urban heat islands’ is a well-documented phenomenon. The relatively warmer temperatures in urban areas compared to suburban areas (i.e. UHI) have potential health and economic hazards.
The Lancet study of 2021 states that deaths caused by high temperatures have risen 74% since 1980. But because heat is far less visible and documented than other kinds of extreme weather, it has been difficult to drum up resources to fight it. But now with every year touching new records, channelling resources to prepare cities and urban population to mitigate the effects of the next heatwave are inevitable.
Cities are Developing Heat Action Plans
More and more cities around the world are creating a new role of ‘heat officers’ to tackle the effects of extreme heat. This comes in a backdrop of an acknowledgement that heat waves will have seismic ramifications on lives and livelihoods.
In Freetown, the capital city of Sierra Leone, Africa's first chief heat officer, Eugenia Kargbo, is leading a heat-mapping initiative to collect data that will help her team and local officials picture the impact of increased summer temperature and incidents of heat waves on residents. The work goes as far as building city parks and green corridors to help cool public spaces to push for improvements to the city's water management systems, such as groundwater recharging supplies and water harvesting, to prevent water shortages. Eleni Myrivili, the CHO for Athens spearheaded a pilot project in Athens to rank heatwaves from Category 1 to Category 3 and developed an adaptation plan.
Many jurisdictions have adopted action plans and associated measures to protect human health during bouts of extreme heat. Most of these heat health action plans have common elements: early warning systems; roles and responsibilities from local to national levels for actions in the plan; integrated communication plans for the public and stakeholders to implement heat alerts and support broader heat-related health education; community level response measures to protect vulnerable populations; long term strategies on preventative measures to reduce risks by reducing the urban heat island through urban planning; and measures for evaluating the plan to support iterative improvements and cross learning by bringing different stakeholders (academia, research, civil society, and local bodies) on common platforms.
Is It Time for Heat Officers in India?
Indian cities are no strangers to extreme summer temperatures. But what they are a stranger to is a coordinated effort to adapt to increasing temperatures. The present strategy on heatwave has mostly been led on the health front, and confined to creating heat-stroke units in the district hospitals.
A heat or climate officer would be responsible for developing a holistic strategy for mitigation and adaptation to increasing incidents of extreme heat. This probably would start with a vulnerability assessment of different sections of the urban population, and drawing on empirical evidence to develop a road map.
A holistic agenda may include developing heatwave early warning systems, designing heat-resilient buildings and infrastructure, promoting public awareness and education about the dangers of extreme heat, strengthening health systems to cope with heat-related illnesses, and developing sustainable cooling solutions. A step further would be developing cross-learning platforms among Indian cities and globally, and increasing investments in policy research. In this regard, India may have a lot to learn from the countries which have already started work on this, particularly from the African nations.
And heatwaves don’t just have bio-physical impacts; they have social consequences too. The action plan against heatwaves requires to have an inclusive approach and thought through from a gender perspective too. Apart from the direct health impacts, the psychological effects of extreme heat leading to increased anxiety, disorientation, and fatigue, leads to indirect impacts of the increased rate of domestic violence against women.
Local Solutions and Citizen Participation
Any action to adapt to extreme temperatures needs to have this holistic and inclusive approach. Also, local solutions will matter more than a top-down led approach. Heat officers can lead these local adaptation strategies. Just like Freetown in Sierra Leone is working on the heat mapping strategy, or Monterrey in Mexico on increasing green public spaces and parks, especially in low-income neighbourhoods to mitigate the heat-island effect, Indian cities will need city-wise approaches, and cross-learning among the cities.
This will also require citizen participation, as they would need to be convinced of or nudged to make sustainable lifestyle choices such as using less water and driving less to help bring down air pollution levels, which are exacerbated by high temperatures.
India’s heatwave interventions are still new, and mostly restricted to managing the health impacts of extreme heat. The heatwave of 2022, and the predicted heatwave of 2023 mean that India needs to push its learning curve. Heatwaves are becoming a staple of Indian summers, and are bringing cities to a halt. Heat officers will have to draft heat action plans, that will require effective heat action plan coordination, scientific expertise, broad communication strategies, and community engagement. And when every city can have a traffic safety unit, a chief health officer, or an air quality team, it may be the appropriate time to have heat officers and heat plans in every city.
(Aakash Mehrotra is a novelist, blogger, and consultant in international development working in South Asia and Africa.)