Converging heat action plans, climate goals and environmental health for healthier communities

  • Heat action plans in India need to integrate long-term measures such as efforts to reduce indoor temperatures, be monitored and updated regularly and be more proactive to mitigate heat stress, say, experts.
  • Early warning systems can be aligned to indoor temperatures and humidity levels of households in low-income settings, which often differ from outside conditions.
  • A recent study shows that the temperature in many tin-roof houses in villages in Maharashtra during peak heat times (afternoon hours) can be more than the outside temperature.

With heatwaves setting in early, stretching on longer and with more intensity, heat action plans now need to account for the changing heat risks and differing vulnerability of exposed population groups. An action plan that mainstreams housing planning and management, land use planning and understanding of indoor heat stress is a long-term strategy to address heat risks in a warming world, say experts.

A recent study that measures indoor heat exposure and compares it to outdoor temperatures in rural-urban areas in South Asia, reveals that heat advisories that emphasise ‘staying indoors’ may not be helpful for families that experience a higher temperature within their homes than outside during the day. Another study that reviews 45 national Heat Action Plans/Health Heat Action Plans (HAP/HHAP) across the world, and HAPs in India pointed to a disconnect to urban planning interventions, and a lack of periodic monitoring and evaluation of HHAPs and a reactive approach to adaptation to heat stress.

“Many Indian cities and states have heat action plans, and they have succeeded in reducing the mortality and morbidity during extreme heat. But they’re focused on mortality and morbidity – they’re basically health-specific. Currently, not many of them have the long-term measures integrated into them,” architect Rajashree Kotharkar and co-author of the review told Mongabay-India. The research is supported by the National Disaster Management Agency.

Kotharkar is working with experts on identifying components of a ‘model heat action plan’ that integrates elements such as long-term urban planning and a reduction in indoor heat exposure. These elements are two of eight elements considered by the World Health Organisation (WHO) to develop comprehensive heat-health action plans. “One of them (long-term measures) is how do you cool the interiors? Because if people are going to stay inside, then how do you cool the interiors of the building, which becomes a part of how do we build in response to climate, which itself is a long-term measure,” added Kotharkar at the Department of Architecture and Planning, Visvesvaraya National Institute of Technology, Nagpur, Maharashtra.

The second long-term measure is identifying the vulnerable people and places, both of which require a heat vulnerability analysis, which is also a dynamic process because it will keep changing. and the third, says Kotharkar is “designing cities which are cooler – how do we plan the cities that will be resilient to the issue of urban heat.” According to the review, specific measures for ‘indoor heat reduction’ were addressed in 24 countries but missing in 14 countries.

Map by Technology by Wildlife.

A rapid analysis by World Weather Attribution scientists said climate change made the deadly heatwave that scorched India and Pakistan 30 times more likely. March was the hottest in India since records began 122 years ago. The heatwave was unusual from other years- it started early and lasted long. They caution that such heat extremes will happen more often as temperatures rise, and we need to be better prepared for it.

In India, Ahmedabad unveiled its HAP in 2013 after the city experienced one of its worst heatwaves in 2010, with 1,344 deaths. The HAP’s implementation has helped the city avoid 1190 heat-related deaths a year. Odisha has also taken a lead at the state level in developing adaptive strategies for heat since 1999. Most city and state HAPs in India are based on the Ahmedabad template.

The Ahmedabad HAP was also highlighted as a leading example of urban heat adaptation in the latest IPCC report. In 2016 the National Disaster Management Agency (NDMA) laid down guidelines for drawing up HAPs in the country, with a focus on the role of the built environment in addressing heat. These include implementing actions such as cool roofs. The NDMA is working with 23 out of 28 heat-prone states in India to develop HAPs in collaboration with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the Indian Institute of Public Health (IIPH), Gandhinagar, and the India Meteorological Department.

Tackling heat stress in low-income communities

“Heat Action Plans should also have a rural heat stress context because heat stress also affects rural populations. When heat action plans started coming up, most were city-centric, they were only meant to address the city’s concerns. After that, there was no rural HAP, but then city HAPs evolved into state HAPs. These state action plans, such as those of Karnataka, Uttar Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh, do talk about rural context, but in a limited way,” explained Premsagar Tasgaonkar of WOTR Centre for Resilience Studies (W-CReS), Watershed Organisation Trust.

Tasgaonkar and colleagues collaborated on the indoor heat exposure study to build an indoor heat measurement dataset from low-income households in rural and urban South Asia – two rural sites in Maharashtra (Yavatmal and Jalna districts) and three in urban Dhaka (Bangladesh), Delhi (India) and Faisalabad (Pakistan). This dataset can be used to examine temperature and humidity differences in poor households in rural and urban areas and to unravel factors aggravating heat stress.

The dataset for the Yavatmal (in Maharashtra’s Vidarbha region) and Jalna districts reveals that the temperature inside tin-roofed houses is quite high compared to the houses that use cement and concrete.

“The key finding is that temperature in tin roof houses during peak heat times, such as in the afternoon hours, is more than the outside temperature. The poor who live in tin-roofed houses may not find advisories to stay indoors during peak heat hours very helpful,” said WOTR’s Dipak Zade and study co-author. Those involved in the design and execution of Heat Action Plans and related heat warning systems can use the data to tailor warnings to expected indoor conditions in low-income settings, which often differ from those observed outdoors, the authors write in the paper.

“Under schemes such as Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana (a housing scheme for the rural poor under the Ministry of Rural Development), the amount of funding that rural communities receive to construct their houses is comparatively less. With that small budget, they can only opt for tin-roofed houses. So then we need to see how we can incentivize so people can have alternative roofing structures that cool the houses inside,” added Zade.

Houses with tin roofs in rural Maharashtra often have temperatures higher than outdoor temperatures. Photo by WOTR.
Houses with tin roofs in rural Maharashtra often have temperatures higher than outdoor temperatures. Photo by WOTR.

“The facilities that are available in urban areas (parks, gardens and air-conditioned malls) are not available in rural areas. The only option poor people in rural areas have is to go indoors, but most times, even inside the houses, the temperature is high. So people would go sit next to their houses, for example, near the well or a common shady space such as the village temple or under a tree. Due to frequent and long periods of power cuts in rural areas, they are unable to run fans. And running evaporative coolers is limited by the scarcity of water in parched areas such as Jalna where droughts are frequent,” notes Zade.

The study builds on a 2019 paper on urban Dhaka, Delhi, and Faisalabad that showed people in densely built, low-income neighbourhoods, with no open green spaces remain unsheltered from heat even at night. Because, at night, these areas tend to trap the heat of the day and stay warmer.

Environmental health and pollution management professional Polash Mukerjee says interventions may be slow to percolate in rural areas.

“That’s why we need to get the key movers in. In Ahmedabad, for example, we have been working with Mahila Housing Trust (MHT) on cool roofs. So the idea itself is extremely simple, and its USP is it is extremely low cost. So if you’re able to ensure that this kind of intervention penetrates and becomes popular in rural households, especially low-income households (in urban and rural areas) because that’s where the most vulnerable are, and it makes the most impact,” Mukerjee explained, adding that passive cooling interventions could be included as guidelines in the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana. Mukerjee is with the Natural Resources Defense Council, which is working with state governments across India on framing HAPs and has worked with Ahmedabad since the inception of the city’s HAP.

Overall, there is an increasing focus on medium- and long-term approaches to mitigate heat stress in HAPs. “That does include changes in built spaces and land use and town planning interventions, but it also includes integration with other ongoing climate change interventions,” Mukerjee, Lead – Air Quality & Climate Resilience Consultant at NRDC India, told Mongabay-India.

Ahmedabad, for instance, has taken up urban greening as part of its HAP in the last couple of years. “In terms of the rural focus, Bihar’s heat action plan is one of the more progressive ones. The Bihar State Disaster Management Authority has interventions that are rural-focused, for example, on animal husbandry and on ensuring that irrigation is available for crops,” added Mukerjee.

Strengthening environmental governance to tackle heat stress

However, Mukerjee echoes the observations from Rajashree Kotharkar’s review that HAPs need to be proactive than reactive – strengthening environmental governance has a significant role. “The fact of the matter is that the impacts of heat go much beyond mortality. Morbidity is one aspect, but there are aspects such as economy, mental health, literacy, education and poverty. Those also need to be proactively managed,” said Mukerjee.

“There’s an acute lack of capacity at the implementation scale in the cities, districts and the states. So that is something that needs to be looked at. In fact, environmental governance in itself is often underrepresented in administrative circles. Integrating future development with aspects of disaster resilience and disaster preparedness. That’s also a very crucial factor and is overlooked,” he added.

A green road in Thiruvananthapuram City, Kerala, India. Photo by Sanjupalayat/Wikimedia Commons
Cities are demonstrating growing interest in investing in nature-based solutions to combat extreme weather conditions. green road in Thiruvananthapuram City, Kerala. Photo by Sanjupalayat/Wikimedia Commons

Setting up environmental health units in cities and states is a potential solution to managing the lack of capacity at the level of implementation.

“We lack a dedicated unit that focuses on all aspects of environmental health and is multi-sectoral and multi-disciplinary in nature. Countries such as the U.S. have environmental protection agencies to address human and environmental health. Besides, our HAPs are mostly adaptation-oriented. We need to also look at mitigation. So we also need to figure out carbon footprints of various sectors in a city, district or state when we map heat stress,” said public health expert Dileep Mavalankar, who heads the Indian Institute of Public Health Gandhinagar and is associated with the Ahmedabad HAP and other HAPs in India, told Mongabay-India.

“But we also need to ensure those core elements such as assessing deaths from heat and communicating risks to the public are robust at all times,” added Mavalankar.

Polash Mukerjee also points to the National Programme on Climate Change and Human Health under the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare as a potential opportunity for convergence with sustained heat stress mitigation efforts. “So these are the opportunities we should be highlighting across different verticals–at the central level, definitely, but more importantly at the state level and city levels,” Mukerjee said.

Banner image: Fisherwomen in Honnavar Harbour using umbrellas to get some respite from the scorching heat. Photo by Hagen Desa.

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