India@70: Building Climate Resilience

Seeking relief from the heat, residents sleep on roofs in India.
Credit: NRDC

Co-Authored by Sayantan Sarkar

As India commemorates its 70th Independence Day, the devastating impacts of climate change are becoming more real, every day. Climate change is here and global temperatures are increasing. Deadly heat waves, floods, and cyclones are hitting communities across the globe. The need to prepare for climate disasters, build resilience, and save lives is real this Independence Day and in the future.

Scientists and authors are echoing the urgency of now, including acclaimed author Amitav Ghosh:

Climate change “is not something that will happen in our children’s generation; it’s happening NOW.”

-Amitav Ghosh on his new book on climate change, The Great Derangement

With record-breaking temperatures this year, heat waves are crippling many parts of India, Europe and the United States. Extreme heat is taking a toll on human health. Heat kills. Symptoms of heat-related illness include vomiting, headaches, dehydration, and diarrhea. Hospital rooms, cooling centers and city infrastructure struggle to keep communities cool and healthy.

This summer, London experienced Britain’s hottest June day since 1976, while Portugal and Southern California battled deadly forest fires. The southwest United States scorched with record breaking temperatures too hot for jets to take off, causing the Phoenix airport to shut down.

In India, temperatures broke records in major population centers. Yes, India is already hot. But, heat waves are intensified by climate change. These hotter temperatures pose a major health threat, especially for the poor who do not have access to fans or ice packs, let alone air conditioner units. Children, expecting mothers, the elderly, and outdoor workers are especially vulnerable.

Early warning systems and response measures are a key solution to building resilience to combat brutal temperatures. France, Switzerland, and the Netherlands triggered emergency response plans. Learning from the historic 2003 heat wave where over 15,000 people died, the French postal service called on vulnerable citizens―elderly and disabled residents living alone―to check on their health.  

Leading Indian states and cities stepped up action this year with expanding heat action plans and early warning systems. Heat action plans include immediate and longer-term actions to increase preparedness, information-sharing, and response coordination to reduce the health impacts of extreme heat.  

Now, over 11 states and 30 cities are adopting Heat Action Plans in India. Both the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) and the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) took leadership at the national level to engage local communities in preparing for extreme heat. The NDMA updated national guidelines focused on 17 states that experience extreme heat with the purpose of developing heat action plans in key states. The IMD and the regional meteorological centres provide 5-day forecasts of daily maximum temperatures to over 300 cities in India, expanding from 100 in 2016.

Three Highlighted Activities from 2017

Building on the initial 2013 Ahmedabad Heat Action Plan, several states and cities launched new heat action plans or ramped up existing plans. Here are key activities:

  • Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, developed a heat action plan, and allocated 5 billion Rupees ($75 million) in financial resources to improve resilience against heat waves.
  • Nagpur, a city in the heart of India, stepped up efforts by installing innovative, protective shade at intersections to provide relief from the heat to pedestrians, traffic police and motorists.
  • Ahmedabad and Hyderabad, cities in the west and south, launched cool roofs initiatives to build resilience to extreme heat in low income communities.  
Innovative shade for intersections in Nagpur.
Credit: NMC

According to the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, mortality rates have dropped significantly over the past three years since Indian states and cities started addressing heat waves. The number of casualties nationally dropped from 2,040 deaths in 2015 to 1,111 deaths in 2016―a 46% reduction. With a decline to 114 registered deaths as of May 2017, implementation of heat action plans has been even more effective in reducing mortality. A full picture of heat-related mortality and morbidity is challenging since recorded illnesses and deaths are under-reported in many parts of India. Yet, the illness death ratio, as calculated Indian government officials, has also declined from 6.21 to 0.34 over the past three years.  

The increased momentum by Indian cities and states in 2017 to tackle heat waves is impressive. As global temperatures rise making heat waves, and other climate disasters, more extreme and more frequent, leadership by the national government in working with states and cities―in India and around the world―is vital to protecting local communities on this Independence Day and beyond.

Sayatan Sarkar works with NRDC’s India team on climate change and clean energy as a consultant in New Delhi.

New 2017 cool roofs pilot in Ahmedabad
Credit: NRDC