Heat-health advisories in rural India: learning during the pandemic era

Source(s)
Climate and Development Knowledge Network
An elderly Indian farmer reaches for a drink of water during a sweltering day
Abhi photo studio/Shutterstock

Climate change is the greatest threat facing humanity today. Among its risks, it is predicted to have a significant, negative influence on agriculture. This is because extreme heat harms both farms (crops, livestock) and farm workers. In this context, the Watershed Organisation Trust (WOTR) has begun issuing heat-health advisories to farmers in rural Jalna district, Maharastra state, India.

Scorching summers will get hotter

As a result of climate change, the scorching Indian summer will get even hotter. This will require immediate action to battle devastating heat stress and develop climate-resilient infrastructure.

WOTR has developed localised heat-health advisories for rural areas of Jalna district with the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) and in strong collaboration with those who are most affected, such as farmers, agriculture labourers, workers employed under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA – which offers 100 days/year of guaranteed labour to rural workers) and others.

WOTR has piloted delivery of heat-health advisories via SMS – selecting villages where WOTR already had an established system for providing agro-met advisories (forecasts for farmers). In this article, we describe how we set up the new advisory services and how farmers have responded.

Building on strong foundations

We decided to roll out heat-health advisories for farmers in the places where we already had good infrastructure and networks for distributing agro-advisory information.

WOTR, in collaboration with the IMD, had already installed 103 automatic weather stations in Jalna, Ahmednagar, Aurangabad, Pune, Nashik, Dhule, and Nandurbar districts of Maharashtra. Of these, 92 automatic weather stations are telemetrically linked to WOTR’s servers and send weather information hourly, around the clock.  

WOTR quality assures the data, and forwards it to the IMD, who generate daily and 3-day weather forecasts for the respective districts.

Based on these short-term forecasts, WOTR’s agricultural experts prepare agro-advisories that are crop- and location-specific. The advisories are issued in the local language, Marathi, via SMS, by posting flyers in prominent places in the villages, and by word of mouth.  

Included in this information is the forecast for the Wet Bulb Global Temperature, which combines temperature and humidity data to give a robust measure of heat stress on the human body (a quick guide to how the WBGT is calculated can be found here; an article on the WBGT implications for India is online here). We keep a database of farmers’ names and cellphone numbers, by location, so we can send them the correct advisory, and we track the delivery status of all advisory messages.

Heat-health advisories: how we set it up

WOTR used the existing agro-advisory systems to distribute the new heat-health advisories.  We are now sending heat-health advisories to 18 villages in Jalna district in Maharashtra state. Jalna has experienced temperatures above 40°C during the summer months and was part of a previous heat stress study conducted by the CARIAA research programme. The 18 villages were selected based on a combination of climate variables, and environmental and socioeconomic vulnerabilities.

Heat-health advisories are triggered when the Wet Bulb Global Temperature forecast for a locality predicts heat stress. We have used the thresholds for ‘heat stress’ as defined in the literature, for acclimatised persons.

We have divided the recipients of the heat-health advisories into three groups:

  1. Neutral warning message: Recipients get neutral warning information about the forecast Wet Bulb Global Temperature for the locality (only).
  2. Explanatory warning message: Recipients get the neutral warning about the forecast Wet Bulb Global Temperature, together with an explanation of the meteorological causes for the forecast.
  3. Explanatory, informative warning message: Recipients get the neutral warning about the forecast Wet Bulb Global Temperature, an explanation of the meteorological causes for the forecast - and also, specific advice on how to change their routines and reduce their vulnerability to heat stress.

There is also a fourth control group that does not receive any heat-health advisory.

The advisories were improved based on feedback we received during a trial period in March 2021.

In total, 2,028 farmers currently receive the heat-health advisory, of whom 297 are female and 1,973 are male.

Some of the recipients said:

"We have been receiving these heat and health issues since May. This SMS (advisory) is useful for taking care of the health of children and the elderly in the home”- Seema Lokhande (Kouchalwadi, Jalna)

"These heat and health advisory SMS helped me to plan my work on the farm as well as outdoors activities. I used to plan my work early in the morning or after 4 pm to avoid the heat exposure during pick heat hours. So I had less trouble in the summer" – Aanand Rothe (Jalna)

How the farmers responded

Fifty farmers commented on July’s health heat alert, with the following results:

  • 80% said they had received the health-heat advisory.
  • 47% believed the advisory should be sent out more frequently, perhaps three times a week.
  • 83% thought the warning corresponded to their own experience with the weather conditions.
  • 53% found the heat-health advisory was “helpful to some level”.
  • 98% said that such types of heat-health advisory are essential during the summer months in this area.

How specifically did people find the advisory helpful? Of those who found it ‘helpful’ in some way, 93% of those said it was helpful overall, 87% said that it was helpful in its health aspect, 77% said it was helpful for scheduling field activities, 60% said it was helpful for rescheduling outdoor activities; and 60% that this advisory was easy to understand.

These findings provide rich lessons and a basis for making the heat-health advisory even more tailored, targeted and useful to farmers in the future.

Reality check: Experiences of a researcher during Covid times    

Premsagar Tasgaonkar, WOTR leads us behind the scenes of the project.

Until now, most studies of heat stress have been concentrated in urban areas and on a few occupational settings. There is little evidence from rural areas.

To generate more rural evidence, the WOTR-Center for Resilience Studies (W-CReS) set about installing temperature and humidity data loggers inside people’s homes in rural Jalna district. We aimed to gather data on indoor temperatures in houses with different roof types (concrete, tin, thatched roofs).

The study site was selected based on a combination of social, biophysical and GIS-based indicators. The social indicators included the total number of households, working and non-working population, presence of a Primary Health Centre and sub-centre. The biophysical indicators consisted of total geographical area, forest area, area under non-agricultural uses, Average Land Surface Temperature, average Normalised Difference Vegetation Index and average water coverage (in acres) (all 2016-20 data). Based on these indicators, we selected Kouchalwadi village, in Ambad block of Jalna district, as a prime location for data gathering.  

The data loggers were ordered in January 2021, but factory production was stalled, and foreign travel was prohibited due to the Covid-19 pandemic, so the data loggers arrived several months late. Thus finally, in late April, I was ready to travel to the village to install the data loggers and prepare authorisation letters from the appropriate authority. I took health-related precautions, including bringing face masks, sanitisers, medicines and drinking water. I had to carry extra data logger batteries from Pune as purchasing them in rural locations is a challenge.

On arrival in Kouchalwadi village, I met with village stakeholders (village head and vice-head, care workers and with WOTR’s Wasundara Sevak) to brief them about the study's objectives and data loggers.

Originally, I had planned to hold a formal meeting with all these stakeholders – and also a group discussion with farmers and agriculture labourers to understand their outdoor heat exposure during the summer months. However, to ensure everyone’s safety during the Covid pandemic, we avoided these group interactions. Instead, I visited individually each household where data loggers were to be installed. 

Another challenge was that in most of the village, people feared interaction with outsiders. They especially feared people from cities such as Pune, like me. (Pune had the highest number of Covid patients in the State during that time). Hence, I carried my vaccine certificate while installing data loggers inside people’s houses. In a few cases, I was not allowed to enter as people were afraid: households had individuals who were more susceptible to Covid, such as elders and pregnant women. They wanted to maintain a safe distance from us. I respected their decisions.  

The fieldwork took time, as explaining the study objective to each of the selected households was crucial.

As anticipated, the state government announced a fresh lockdown when I was only part-way through my task. With the help of field investigators and village stakeholders, I managed to install only eight data loggers; then the WOTR driver and I decided to return back to Pune, lest we become stuck in our rural location.

Thereafter, we had to improvise. Once safely back in Pune, we made a demo video on how to install data loggers, change the batteries, fix an interval in the data loggers, etc. and select an appropriate place, direction and height for installation. The video was shared with our local field staff. With some initial hiccups, the field team managed to install all the remaining data loggers.

Now, the field personnel send us a regular data backup, which is critical for understanding the rural people' indoor heat exposure and vulnerabilities.

In hindsight, I am happy and proud that we achieved these results. We needed to balance the expenses for the equipment and the limited window for collecting data during mid-2021, as contracted, with the risks of getting ill, making others ill, or ending up far from home under travel restrictions.

I took a calculated risk and kept on improvising to finally acquire the precious data that we needed. Of course this was also made possible by the cooperation of the local staff and the households that admitted us into their homes. This account shows that research in practice is not always easy, but a researcher can achieve his or her goals with persistence and a little help from  their friends.

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