Building Climate Resilience in India

Credit: Ahmedabad IEC poster on heat waves (NRDC-IIPHG)

Co-authored with Laasya Bhagavatula and Sayantan Sarkar

Temperatures have been spiking in western India. On a recent visit to Ahmedabad in May, the city was reeling under a heat spell with daytime highs of 45oC (112oF). Our visit was also met with very poor air quality, worse than even that of Delhi. Ahmedabad is not alone in facing these challenges. Air pollution continues to plague Indian cities, with recent reports by the World Health Organization (WHO) showing that 14 of the world’s 20 most polluted cities are in India. Working with the community, the city of Ahmedabad is responding to strengthen resilience by empowering residents to protect themselves and their families from extreme heat and worsening air pollution.

Impacts of Extreme Heat and Air Pollution

With skyrocketing temperatures fueled by climate change, extreme heat is taking a toll on human health. Heat can kill. Hospital rooms, cooling centers and city infrastructure struggle to keep communities cool and healthy. Extreme heat puts millions across the country at risk of heat-related illnesses. So far, India’s heat waves have accounted for over 22,000 deaths since 1992, according to the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA).

Air pollution is a major public health threat in most of India. A 2017 Lancet Commission study on pollution and health found that ambient air pollution causes a staggering 1.09 million deaths each year in India. Air pollution (indoor and outdoor) accounts for approximately 10% of India’s total burden of disease. India’s cities suffer the highest health burden of air pollution on the planet, as my colleague Vijay Limaye explains.

Leading National, State and City Action on Climate Resilience

Building climate resilience is important in India given India’s large vulnerable population. The national government is taking action on climate resilience through initiatives such as early warning and forecasting systems for extreme heat by the Indian Meteorological Department and the NDMA, as well as the draft National Clean Air Plan. At the state and local level, key cities and regions across India are acting on extreme heat and air pollution. 

On extreme heat, an exciting development this year is NDMA’s new goal: achieving zero mortality from heat waves in India. Over 30 cities across 11 states in India are actively implementing heat action plans to prepare and respond to extreme heat.  

On air pollution, New Delhi launched a two-week long Clean Air Campaign. Varanasi just developed a clean air action plan for the city and its five surrounding districts. The plan, prepared by the Uttar Pradesh State Pollution Control Board, is expected to go public soon. Nagpur is building a citywide e-mobility plan with charging infrastructure, partnerships for electric taxis with ride-sharing company Ola, tax incentives for electric and hybrid vehicles, and lower fares for electric buses. Bengaluru, too, is looking to build infrastructure to promote electric vehicles.

Building Public Awareness and Community Outreach

Engaging every day citizens is key to building climate resilience. Building community awareness involves a host of strategies to share information and education on health risks associated with extreme heat and air pollution and practices to prevent heat- and pollution-related deaths and illnesses. Strategies include disseminating public messages through media outlets and informational materials, such as pamphlets, hoardings, posters, stickers and advertisements, with tips for health protection during extreme heat and air pollution emergencies. A key element of many states’ response strategies has been enhanced communications on health risks and simple steps citizens can take to reduce their exposure and protect their health. Local and national media, along with more modern media such as WhatsApp and social media channels, are effective in building public awareness—and are popular in India.

Information, Education and Communication (IEC) materials on extreme heat were first developed by the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation, along with partners NRDC and Indian Institute of Public Health, Gandhinagar (IIPHG). Building on Ahmedabad’s experience, many other cities and states were motivated by these initial ads to develop and disseminate similar ads. NDMA is working with states and has released a series of television ads in local languages on heat preparedness. Through 2018, NDMA has also been using social media, with the hashtag #BeatTheHeatIndia, to share information on extreme heat and actions the public can take to protect themselves.

Credit: Ahmedabad IEC poster on air pollution (NRDC-IIPHG)

Ahmedabad’s air quality monitoring data, Air Quality Index system, and emissions inventory are helping to drive local evidence-based action to address the city’s air pollution challenge. The city of Ahmedabad, with support from partners NRDC and IIPHG along with Ahmedabad’s expert working group on air quality, developed enhanced IEC materials to help build community awareness about air pollution in Ahmedabad. During our May expert working group meeting, the new series of air pollution ads were discussed further and are being beta tested at local institutions to get feedback for the city-wide release in a few months.

Both the extreme heat and air pollution communication materials are based on scientific evidence with local and international expertise. They were developed through a series of meetings and detailed discussed with local communities, medical professions, and civil society groups. The IEC materials are for display on billboards, bus stops, and other prominent places in the city to spread awareness and knowledge on the impacts of these climate challenges in Ahmedabad and to help citizens take action.

These climate adaptation efforts show that India—especially through city and state action—is taking seriously its commitments to combat climate change. Through this progress, India is showing the world that, as we work together to fight climate change, we can take smart steps right now to build resilience for millions of people.