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Can India Beat the Heat? Renewed Focus on Heat-Proofing Is the Way Ahead

Welcome to an overbaked world, where temperatures mount to intense warming.

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Amid lethal and brutal summers, India celebrated World Environment Day on 5 June – but is our environment healthy?

From air conditioners catching fire, to consumer redressal courts deferring arguments due to lack of cooling infrastructure in courts, to the Chief Election Commissioner reiterating that elections should be completed before summer, schools being shut, to manufacturing industries reducing work hours – this is our new normal.

Welcome to an overbaked world, where temperatures mount to intense warming, ignited by man-made climate change and cyclic El Niño weather patterns.

The science is crystal clear on how human-induced climate change makes days hotter, longer, and more frequent. The frequency and intensity of heat waves have increased by at least four times since the 1970s.

The heat extremes matter because it is no longer just a climatological issue; it’s an issue that is ravaging common lives and livelihoods more in patterns than in waves.

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‘Our House Is on Fire’

As per the latest reports by market intelligence conglomerates, India’s manufacturing activity has hit a record low due to reduced working hours – a 3-7 percent reduction in agricultural productivity is estimated by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research's projections, making the situation harsher.

Heat waves have created new headlines from Kashmir to Kanyakumari and forced decision-makers to take radical steps.

IPE-Global’s analysis of the IMD climate and meteorological data suggests that seven out of 10 Indians are exposed to heat waves or heatwave-like conditions.

The peak power demand is at an all-time high and estimates by the Indian Labour Organisation (ILO) have suggested that India is on the brink of losing more than 40 million jobs by 2030 due to extreme heatwaves.

Numbers speak volumes, and as climate activist Greta Thunberg piteously puts it, “Our house is on fire”, – but not just our house, our ecosystems too.

Surviving in an Over-Baked Climate

Although Indian cities and districts are prone to heat, prolonged and erratic extreme heat events can be deceptively dangerous, which is why there has been mayhem. Any further delay to address these will only aggravate the situation.

As a first step, India needs to map heat risks by establishing a Heat Risk Observatory (HRO), a risk-informed decision-making toolkit for decision-makers at the district and city level under the National Resilience Programme.

Such an observatory should identify, assess, and project chronic and acute heat risks at a hyper-granular level to better prepare against heat-related extremities like urban heat islands, water stress, crop loss, vector-borne diseases, biodiversity collapse, and ecosystem collapse.

Primarily, the HROs should embrace heat wave-index-based emergency surveillance.

What We Need To Do To Cut the ‘Heat Wave Cult’

A heat wave index, colloquially known as humidex, should combine temperature and humidity to approximate a person's discomfort.

The humidex depends on individuals; it can largely provide inferences on the likelihood of impacts across communities, sectors, and, more importantly, on human health.

The HRO can help alert citizens about potential heat-related risks through impact-based forecasting – it can answer questions as simple as whether playing outside, staying indoors, or shortening the working hours is safe.

The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation is already devising India’s first multi-hazard risk atlas.

There is no second thought that an HRO will further help limit underestimating economic, social, health, and financial losses due to heat stress. An HRO is imperative to cut the heat wave cult.

Secondly, India must bring cool and green roofing from the margins to mainstream.

According to the World Cities Report, India is going to add more than 416 million urban dwellers to the tally.

Shifting the climate conversation from problem identification to solutions mappings can make India heat wave ready.

One of the solutions is green roofing. Research estimates suggest that green roofing can cool local temperatures by 3-5 degrees Celsius, depending on the natural landscapes surrounding the habitation.

Few governments, like Singapore, have mandated green roofs, and the German and US governments have a medium of providing incentives – India is still piloting the case.

Telangana has a cool roof policy, and city authorities in Mumbai and Bengaluru are nudging inhabitants to adopt green roofs – but it is piecemeal.

India must converge its housing schemes and guidelines with green and cool roof mandates to relinquish the impacts of heat stress.

It is critical that we prioritise improving the insulation of our current housing inventory through green and cool roofs to better protect against extreme temperatures and help offset urban heat islands, leading to reduced energy costs over time.

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Making India Heat Wave-Ready

Thirdly, enhancing the environmental typology through restoration, revival, and rehabilitation of urban natural ecosystems like mangroves, wetlands, green areas – parks, urban forests, and biodiversity reserves should become a national imperative.

As India is sitting deep on the all-time high warmer Indian Ocean, extreme heat events will disrupt the cyclic and seasonal processes, leading to intensification of other climate extremes like cyclones and floods.

Investing in and fast-tracking urban landscape restorations will enhance the soil moisture capacity and crop yield, reduce soil erosion and evaporative losses, and sequester more carbon.

Research suggests that mangroves can store almost ten times more carbon than forests and are good dampers of heat stress; additionally, they de-risk storm surges and inundation.

Heatwave mitigation, although a global challenge, calls for solutions that are very region-specific, embedding ground realities, local landscapes, and ecosystems. Bet on heat wave-ready nature-based solutions that can address the triad of jobs, growth, and sustainability; they really matter the most.

Instead of using alarmist language about the planet being in an emergency state, it may be more beneficial to accept shared responsibility for addressing climate change and making India heat wave-ready.

India needs a renewed focus on heat-proofing its population and growth narrative – any miss now can cost decades of developmental backlog.

The dichotomy of climate inaction can further weaken the fissured economy derailed by more frequent and extreme heat events.

Since the pernicious heat wave isn’t going anywhere, India has the potential to become the climate solutions capital of the world.

(Abinash Mohanty leads the Climate Change and Sustainability practice at IPE Global, an international development organisation, and is an expert reviewer of the IPCC-AR(6). Umang H Raina is Associate Director in the Urban Infrastructure and Tourism Practice at IPE Global. You can tweet to them at @abinash0294 and @ipe_global. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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