Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC)
By Anjali Jaiswal, Kim Knowlton and Vijay Limaye
As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, the coronavirus pandemic puts a spotlight on climate change and health. Temperatures are already rising to 40°C (104°F) while the countries’ 1.3 billion people remain on lockdown. Government officials and health care professionals in India are actively diligently working to contain the spread of COVID-19 while also initiating efforts to protect communities from imminent heat waves through Heat Action Plans and Cool Roofs. NRDC and partners that are leading this work have recently been selected as finalists for the prestigious 2020 Ashden Awards, which recognize pioneering sustainability solutions.
Brutally hot weather is a major health threat in India and many other parts of the world. Climate change is fueling more frequent, intense, and longer heat waves. The COVID-19 emergency worsens the response to heat-related illness since hospitals and urban health centers are already stressed. In response to this mounting threat, cities and regions across India are taking concrete actions to build resilience and better prepare and protect communities.
Heat is not merely an inconvenience; it kills. Symptoms of heat-related illness include vomiting, headaches, dehydration, and diarrhea. Staff in hospitals, businesses, and municipal buildings often struggle to keep communities cool and healthy. The number of high-temperature days in India has increased over the past fifty years, and especially since the 1990s, in highly-populated cities, such as Mumbai and New Delhi.
The India Meteorological Department (IMD) and National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) are already working to prepare and respond to anticipated heatwaves. NDMA is also charged as the central agency responsible for COVID-19 response, making the burden of this season even heavier. For the 2020 heat season, IMD’s seasonal forecast shows the heat wave conditions are likely to be severe. NDMA has already activated the network of state disaster response agencies and city leaders to prepare for the soaring temperatures, including an updated list of Do’s and Don’t’s.
NRDC and a broad set of partners, including the Public Health Foundation of India - Indian Institute of Public Health-Gandhinagar (PHFI-IIPH-G) work with government leaders and key experts across India and internationally to develop, launch, and implement heat action plans. Heat action plans are a comprehensive plans for building climate resilience to extreme heat events through public awareness and community outreach; early warning system and interagency coordination; capacity building among health care professionals; and reducing heat exposure and promoting adaptive measures.
A peer-reviewed and published study found that Ahmedabad, one of India’s largest cities, avoided an estimated 1,190 deaths each year after implementing the country’s first Heat Action Plan. The Ahmedabad Heat Action Plan was originally released in 2013 and developed by NRDC, IIPH-G and partners. Heat Action Plans have since expanded to over 23 states and over 100 cities and districts through the leadership of NDMA.
An important component of heat action plans includes cool roofs. Cool roofs reflect sunlight and absorb less heat. Depending on the setting, cool roofs can help keep indoor temperatures lower by 2 to 5°C (3.6 - 9°F) as compared to traditional roofs. They are cost effective solutions that work to protect vulnerable groups and slum communities.
Cities, states and the national government are taking steps to protect communities and save energy costs, through cool roof programs. For example, Ahmedabad has started a cool roofs program for over 15,000 buildings as part of its heat action plan this year, focusing on slum households and city-owned buildings. Building on its initial pilot program two year ago, Hyderabad now has a draft statewide policy as part of its building efficiency program. The national government is working towards sustainable cooling for all with the India Cooling Action Plan, which includes promotion of passive cooling techniques such as cool roofs and energy efficiency programs for buildings, air conditioners and fans.
The Ahmedabad Heat Action Plan, along with its cool roofs program, is among the two finalists up for the award in the Cool Cities category, as highlighted in the Ashden blog earlier this month. We are honored to share the nomination with a women-led architecture firm ECOnsult, keeping farm workers in the Egyptian desert cool.
The Ashden Cool Cities Award, sponsored by K-CEP and Climateworks, emphasized the link between the COVID-19 pandemic and the climate crisis because “those already disadvantaged are most at risk”. That is why the Ashden finalists include organizations helping the most vulnerable. Ashen also highlights another link between the two emergencies and theme for the finalist: “How all of us, whatever our wealth or status, can come together to create change that benefits everyone.”
NRDC is deeply humbled to share the Ashden nomination with the many partners who contribute to effective Heat Action Plans and Cool Roofs Programs. We congratulate all of our partners and their unique roles.
Many cities, states and institutions around India also contributed to the effectiveness of Heat Action Plans, including public and private hospitals, urban health centers, link works, 108 ambulance response services and more. Several international experts also contributed to the Heat Action Plans and Cool Roofs, including deep expertise from the University of Washington, Mount Sinai Icahn School of Public Health, and Georgia Tech Institute of Technology, as well as, NYC Cool Roofs, National Ocean and Atmospheric Agency, Global Heat Health Information Network, Indo-US Science and Technology Forum, the Climate Development and Knowledge Network, among others.
As climate change continues to fuel brutal heat waves worldwide, effective public health response strategies are more important than ever before. Drawing on the strengths of government leadership, efficient interagency coordination, scientific expertise, robust communication programs, effective community engagement, strong action on heat preparedness can deliver lifesaving benefits. In discussing the commonality between the coronavirus emergency and climate crisis, Shloka Nath with TataTrusts recently reminded us, “The only boat that is going to save us, is the boat we build together.”
The authors would like to thank our colleagues, Prima Madan and Polash Mukerjee, who contributed to this blog.