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Observing heatwaves in light of adaptation and mitigation

Heatwaves are turning out to be a major hazard for taking sound, sustained, and substantial adaptation and mitigation measures in South Asia. This is odd, because most science-driven and related observations lead to upcoming catastrophic loss and damage to human life, ecosystems, and economic sectors in South Asia.

HOISA’s second panel (Click here) brought together key experts from the region to collectively observe and focus on the so far under-observed aspects of adaptation and mitigation in addressing the growing frequency of heatwaves in South Asia. It was observed that to aptly form the necessary adaptation and mitigation plan, we must cover the meteorological aspect of heat waves - how they are currently observed, assessed, and mapped and what are their projections in the near future.

Heatwaves in summer are a normal climatic feature of the Indian subcontinent. However, due to climate change and an increase in carbon emissions, the past few decades have witnessed an early onset longer lingering, overlapping and increase in frequencies of heat waves (IPCC AR6). Known to be silent killers, heatwaves have in fact caused significant loss and damage in not just South Asia, but also in Europe, Australia, and the Americas. This situation will only aggravate in the coming years in the region.

There is no universal definition of heatwaves. Until now the heatwaves were defined in India by the deviation of the mean temperature from normal, this however is undergoing changes. It is important to factor in other factors such as relative humidity, direct sunshine, and wind to be able to give a more precise measure of heat and its effect on the human body. And also, why only the human body? Other living creatures? And non-living objects? This range must be observed well in the coming years to have a more holistic understanding of heatwaves related adaptations and mitigations. Similarly, the measurement of heat denoted simply by one temperature for a city is completely imprecise. Within the city, the temperature varies greatly from area to area depending on the urban planning and land use. It was observed that the lesser the water bodies in and around the city more severe the heatwave hotspot impact in South Asia. These precise additional datasets—water bodies to vegetation—are therefore required to rightly implement an adaptation and mitigation plan.

With all these variables in play, we need mechanisms that try to address heat waves at various levels - global, regional, national, sub-national, urban and local. Robust warning and adaptation plans must be designed and implemented at each of these levels to holistically prepare against the global warming we are facing. And while we do so, it is also imperative to take into account how global warming, with all its uneven heating, is projected in the future. We have already witnessed in the past decades how the regions of impact and frequency have increased and we must plan for that future as well.

It was observed by the panel that heatwaves trends are projected to have an increase in intensity, frequency, duration, geographical spread and seasonal spread. In addition, deviation, the layout of the wave, unfurling of heat, rolling out of measures, and escalating of impact must be kept under our observations. Unmitigated urban heat will cost up to 11% of the GDP by 2100. And this estimate leaves out key aspects of GDP contributors such as migrant workers and casual labour. This will threaten sectors such as Food and Agriculture, Water Management, Energy, and Transport. As a consequence, we can also expect a rise in disease-carrying vectors, migration, crumbling infrastructure, wildlife decline, forest fires, increased burden on health care services and more. India and Pakistan are particularly at risk of an increase in heat waves by a factor of 30.

While planning for the management of this crisis, actions can be taken at various levels of government, civil society and markets. National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) has issued National Guidelines for Heat Action Plans (Provide link). Centre for Policy Research - India, classified the 37 heat action plans in India, in adaptation and mitigation measures which can be applied across the region. These measures were classified in Infrastructure Changes, Behavioural Changes, Nature Based Solutions, Information Dissemination, Institutional Capacity Building and Technological solutions. You can access it here. These measures would set a very strong foundation for us to tackle heatwaves. AIDMI is currently rating the performance of these heatwave action plans from the point of view of affected citizens in Ahmedabad.

Further, we also need more local Heat Action Plans and appropriate policies, early heat warning systems, vulnerability assessment and social distribution of risk, appropriate financing and perhaps nomination of Chief Heat Officers as was recently done in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

In light of this crisis, Asian Disaster Preparedness Center plans to systematically collect data on heatwaves, develop monitoring and early warning systems using weather models, communicate to these communities at risk, and help build response capability at a local level.

During the discussion, the panel also touched upon the need to think about developing Cooling Action Plans (CAP). Access to mechanical cooling is still very low in the region. Only 8% use ACs in India, and the per capita of energy spent on cooling is in fact 4 times lower than the world average. This is one domain which will grow tremendously over the years. How can this cooling be green, clean, local, off-grid, and use renewable energy? Colling per se must be observed differently.

Controlling the unmitigated impact of the growing cooling demand, through energy-efficient cooling technologies is part of a matrix of solutions that involves multiple stakeholders with no clear owner. This poses significant complexity, per se, but also to ecosystem-based cooling.

A cross-cutting problem such as sustainable cooling, and developing adaptation and mitigation cannot be solved by a single ministry or department, a UN agency or any other authority in South Asia. And for that matter, it cannot be solved by many different ministries and departments working in silos or in unsynchronized coordination. Cooling is about coming together. In this context, an integrated policy is the answer to this problem. One successful example of this is ICAP - India’s Cooling Action Plan, 2019, which was so successful that it is currently used by several countries, including Cambodia, Pakistan, Jordan, Lebanon, Vietnam, and Indonesia, among 7 others to create their own country-level actions.

We must learn from projects such as ICAP—both what worked and what didn’t work—to form an integrated policy and action framework that involves an adequate representation of the public sector, the private sector, and the knowledge sector with a strong enforcement mechanism to resolve the looming heatwaves crisis.

And while we mobilise for a strong policy building, parallel heat wave management solutions must continue on the ground at district and municipality levels with the appointment of Chief Heat Officers (like in Bangladesh) or Nodal officers in charge of the implementation of Heat Actions Plans (like in Ahmedabad) to take immediate actions. Simple measures like having more ventilation in and trees around housing, shifting working time in the afternoon to early morning, change in food and dietary habits, and easy filling or roomy clothes are extremely important.

Progress is being made. There are innovations in the development of heat action plans, forecasting and monitoring, education and awareness, responses to heat waves, and infrastructure improvements in South Asia. They need to be captured in upcoming humanitarian system studies. And while we move ahead, we must prioritise low-income group areas and populations who are particularly at risk of heat waves. Policies, strategies, and action plans must be geared towards protecting affected people who are at high-risk.

Following are a few points of further observations that the panel enlisted.

  • First and foremost is the observation area of the heat wave and migration, both as adaptation and mitigation measures. What is it that could be done and can be done to hold and ease the crisis?

  • Impact of heatwave on agriculture. We have studies on the impact of heatwaves on life and livelihoods, but not as much on - food, agriculture, and multicultural farming. What is it that could be done as an adaptation measure and mitigation measure in regard to food, agriculture, horticulture, dairy, fishery and more?

  • Third is about how to prepare for early warning systems and getting that regional information communicated on the ground to farmers and workers and other stakeholders.

  • Fourth aspect is the impact of air, water and land pollution on the heatwaves. What kind of adaptive measures and mitigative measures will help reduce that negative impact between them? Protection from pollution is protection from heatwave impact.

  • Forestry is another area that we must observe and this includes urban forests. A lot of work is being done in this domain in Bangladesh particularly but forests as adaptation and mitigation measures are highly important for South Asia.

  • What is a sustainable or green habitat? How we must incorporate that into our existing built environment? How can we observe this more?

  • Rejuvenation and preservation of water bodies Mitigation of Urban Heat Island effect by cool roofs, green buildings/infrastructure and environment

  • A study on heat waves in the Himalayas is needed - as that's a paradox. But the truth may be that heatwave will greatly affect the people there and in very different ways.

  • And lastly, we must investigate the economic cost of heat waves in terms of the loss and damage it causes to the economy. That is something we have information on, but not enough to really scale up our Heat Action Plans. We must observe more and more carefully.

This panel included Dr Ajit Tyagi, President, South Asia Meteorological Association, Senior Advisor at Integrated Research & Action for Development, New Delhi and Former Director General of Meteorology. Dr. Niladri Gupta, Sr. Water Resources Management Specialist, Asian Disaster Preparedness Center. Akash Goenka, Team Leader at Alliance for an Energy-Efficient Economy. And Mihir Bhatt, Director of All India Disaster Mitigation Institute, and member, of the steering committee, IASC of the UN focusing on heatwaves.

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