Heatwave in India: Lessons for implementing Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction in Asia - Q&A with Mihir R. Bhatt

Source(s): United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction All India Disaster Mitigation Institute

Over 2,400 citizens have lost their lives over the past two weeks due to lack of preparedness to face the heatwave. However it is likely this figure is much higher as heat related illness is often recorded inaccurately and figures from rural areas are hard to attain. It is suggested that it normally takes a month after the heatwave to get a true picture of the impact. Loss of health, livelihoods, and business is yet to be calculated, but it is clear this could have been avoided. The United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR) interviewed Mihir R. Bhatt, Head of All India Disaster Mitigation Institute and Chair of Duryog Nivaran at ISDR IAP Meeting of 2015 in Bangkok to explain what heat waves are, how they are impacting India and possible solutions that can be incorporated in implementing Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction in Asia.

UNISDR: What is a heat wave?  

Mihir R. Bhatt: Heat waves are present in countries throughout the world and are broadly defined as periods of abnormal heat. Definitions vary, in part because a heat wave is measured relative to the usual weather in the area and relative to normal temperatures of the season. In the past three to four decades there has globally been an increased trend in high-humidity heat waves. Extreme heat events are responsible for more deaths annually than hurricanes, lightning, tornadoes, floods and earthquakes combined. Numerous studies have documental that human induced climate change has increased the frequency and severity of heat waves across the globe. Extreme Heat can lead to dangerous, even deadly, health consequences, including heat stress and heatstroke. In India a heat wave is declared when there is a departure of between 40C to 50C from the normal temperature while a “severe heatwave” refers to a departure of more than 60C or temperatures above 450C . At these temperatures, chances of a heatstroke, a possibly fatal illness which results from the overheating of the human body, are high for the citizens out under the sun

UNISDR: How are heat waves affecting India?  

MRB: Heat waves are a significant health concern in India, extreme heat hazards are projected to increase in frequency and severity with climate change.

UNISDR: Who is measuring heat waves?  

MRB: The India Meteorological Department has been making more accurate and timely heatwave predictions in India over the past four years. A big forward step is taken. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Special Report on “Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation (SREX) report had concluded that more heatwaves will occur and especially in cities. The Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) Outreach Event in Dehradun by Central Himalayan Environment Association (CHEA) and Kolkata by Jadavpur University in March 2015 also indicated more frequent heatwaves in India’s cities.

UNISDR: Which groups are most vulnerable to heat waves?  

MRB: The most vulnerable groups are slum dwellers, outdoor workers, the elderly and the very young. However, there has yet to be further research done on the impacts to street vendors, beggars, traffic police and hawkers. In India a street is also a place of work for millions. As a result, almost all day, and most nights, citizens work on streets of Indian cities and are impacted by heatwaves. Also, children and homeless are another group that suffers from a heatwave.

UNISDR: How has Ahmedabad responded to heat waves?  

MRB: The Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation (AMC) health team in Gujarat, India, has worked with Indian Institute of Public Health (IIPH) and Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) teams for over 3 years to make India’s first heatwave action plan which is also rare for Asia. The plan lays out actions that the citizens, the public and private institutions, and the enabling policy makers can take to reduce the negative impact of heatwaves on citizens. The plan has performed over the years and reduced the impact. Last year less citizens died due to heatwave in Ahmedabad and even less suffered health issues. Drinking more water, standing under shade, are some of the key actions. But do our cities offer such facilities to common citizens? The AMC has now institutionalized heatwave planning and put it on its annual plan and budget. Ahmedabad is India’s first city to have a heatwave plan. NRDC is taking this idea to other cities with IIPH.

UNISDR: What is included in the heat wave plan?

MRB: The Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation (AMC) is rapidly improving the city's public health infrastructure in response to the unique Heatwave Action Plan project's recommendations. For example, ambulance services are now located strategically in places where many calls for help are issued. Hospitals receive warnings when extreme temperatures are forecast and now have extra ice packs on hand, and drinking water stations and awareness-building materials are distributed throughout Ahmedabad. Traditions of parabadi or pubic drinking water facility is being revived.

The Heat Action Plan is a four-pronged strategy and almost any city in India can take up. The first involves a communications outreach which informs citizens about the risk of heat illness and preventive measures to take. This year, new media such as mobile messaging service, WhatsApp, are used as a dissemination channel along with more traditional means such as wall posters and inter-personal communication.

The second involves a warning system in the case of a heatwave with actionables mapped out for various governmental agencies. Who will do what, when, and how is clear to key individuals and units of key departments. The third important step involves training health care professionals—public and some private—to better respond to heat illness while the fourth involves adapting the physical plan of the city to better cope with heat: mapping high-risk areas, making potable water easily accessible and building temporary cooling spaces during periods of extreme heat. The plan is revised as each new lesson is learned.

UNISDR: Is this enough?

MRB: To start with. But in the end what we need is development focused heatwave plans that manage heatwave risk, build resilience, and promote ecosystem based pro-poor urban planning.

UNISDR: Does the rest of the world have heat wave plans?

MRB: Strengthening public authorities to deal with excessive heat are the global norm. After the 2003 heat wave in France, which killed almost 15,000 people, the French government formulated a heat health watch warning system, a nationwide system of combating heat illness in case of abnormally hot weather. Some studies estimates that during the 2006 heat wave, 4,400 deaths were avoided as a result of this system being in place. In India we do not have such nation wide studies.

Similarly, the National Workshop on Scaling up Successful Heat Action Plan from Ahmedabad to other parts of India, where the Mayor and Commissioner of AMC were congratulated, attracted interest from the city of Nagpur in Maharashtra where later in the month a Round Table was held and more cities in Maharashtra turned up to prepare for Ahmedabad-like heatwave plan.

Over 40 mayors at the recent event in Delhi, organized by UN Habitat, Cities Network Campaign, and Climate and Development Knowledge Network (CDKN), titled, South Asia City Summit, showed interest in Ahmedabad’s heatwave plan. The session, Scaling up Successful Heat Action Plan from Ahmedabad to other parts of India concluded that Smart Cities are Heatwave Safe Cities.

Ahmedabad has shown a pathway for towns and cities of India. At the Third UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction in Sendai, Japan, the Ahmedabad Heat Action Plan was showcased as a finalist for the prestigious Munich RE Foundation RISK Award alongside 20 other "best proposals" out of 145 submissions from 62 countries. In many ways the heatwave plan shows how the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction is already owned and implemented by city authorities.

Cities across the world have protected citizens with a wide range of measures such as tree plantation on city roads for shade, enforcing building bye-laws for overhangs to shade walls and windows, and increasing structures for individuals on duty such as traffic police or street cleaner. Such measures are also taken in Indian cities but at much smaller scale than the heatwave challenge demands.

UNISDR: A last word?

MRB: A disaster is also a creative moment in the life of a nation. And so are heatwaves for India. How to turn this ongoing and increasing loss of life and livelihoods into the world’s largest national strategy for heatwave preparedness that not only protects citizen from the impact of heat but in fact reduces the impact itself?

The Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction cannot be implemented in Asia without addressing the increasing risk of heatwave. Any Regional Implementation Plan for Asia must draw from the Ahmedabad experience. No national landscape of risk can be drawn out in Asia without including heatwave risk.

I am sure at the upcoming Asian Ministerial Conference of Disaster Risk Reduction in 2016 Delhi over two dozen cities across Asia will come up to share their heatwave preparedness plan experience.

(Mihir R. Bhatt leads All India Disaster Mitigation Institute in Ahmedabad and is Chair of Duryog Nivaran in South Asia).

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