Wake Up Call: South Asia's Heat Emergency

How Communities Can Respond to the Lethal Threats of Extreme Heat and Climate Change

Co-authored by Anjali Jaiswal, Director of NRDC's India Initiative, and Dr. Dileep Mavalankar, Director of the Indian Institute of Public Health - Gandhinagar

The deadly heat wave gripping Pakistan, with the death toll crossing 1,200, is the latest reminder of the dangers of a warming world. India is also still reeling after more than 2,300 people died during a tragic heat wave that hit the subcontinent last month. As we are seeing around the world, and most recently, Pope Francis and leading scientists emphasized: climate change is happening now, its harmful effects are real, and it is imperative that we take concerted action to protect public health and the environment.

Pope Francis, in his recent encyclical Laudato Si, urges the world to confront the devastating effects of climate change. The Pope focused attention on the need to act on climate change in developing countries - particularly for the poor, who "have no other financial activities or resources which can enable them to adapt to climate change or to face natural disasters."

In a landmark report published by the 2015 Lancet Commission on Health and Climate Change last week, leading medical experts concluded that climate change is a "medical emergency". Mitigating its effects could provide the greatest opportunity to improve global public health in the 21st century. The Lancet report estimates that extreme heat related to climate change may claim anywhere from 12,000 to 65,000 additional lives each year worldwide by the end of the century, as shown in the infographic below.

Over the past decades, extreme temperatures have become more frequent and intense due to climate change. The already-high temperatures experienced in many Indian cities and elsewhere leave vulnerable groups, often poor people, exposed to harsh, and at times, deadly conditions.

Temperatures in some regions of India soared to 48°C (118°F) during last month's lethal heat wave. However, our experiences with the Ahmedabad heat action plan and worldwide show that strong early warning systems and preparedness plans save lives from scorching heat.

Source: The 2015 Lancet Commission on Health and Climate Change (click on image to expand)

Taking a stand against the heat - the Ahmedabad Heat Action Plan

In May 2010, a deadly heat wave hit the city of Ahmedabad in Gujarat. Peak temperatures of 46.8°C (116°F) caused a spike in reported heat-related illness and death with an additional 1,344 lives lost that month.

To protect residents from future sweltering temperatures, the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation collaborated with NRDC, the Indian Institute for Public Health-Gandhinagar (IIPH-G) - India's first university for public health, the Public Health Foundations of India (PHFI), Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, and Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University to create a Heat Action Plan in 2013. In doing so, Ahmedabad became the first city in South Asia to adopt a heat early warning system and preparedness program.

Ahmedabad's groundbreaking Heat Action Plan lays out a comprehensive strategy to protect communities and prepare for heat waves. The plan focuses on an early warning system to forecast and alert residents ahead of impending heat waves, community outreach and communication to increase awareness of preventative actions to take, and building capacity among health professionals to treat residents suffering from heat illness. Georgia Institute of Technology's CFAN group provides a pioneering daily 7-day forecasts to the municipal government to help them determine when to declare a heat alert.

Some practical actions that governments, health officials, and community groups can encourage immediately to fight the heat include:

  • Drink water and stay hydrated
  • Stay out of the sun
  • Avoid physical activity during peak hours
  • Wear loose-fitted, light-colored clothing
  • Check in with family and friends, particularly the elderly and children
  • See a doctor or health care professional if you are not feeling well

As the Lancet report confirms, heat preparedness programs can effectively protect health and save lives. According to the report, seven of eight studies on the effectiveness of heat wave early warning systems saw fewer deaths following their adoption. The Lancet Commission urges governments to invest more resources in creating heat preparedness plans, and the Ahmedabad Heat Action Plan can offer a strong model for local action.

While heat action plans build community resilience, longer term planning is also critical. Increasing clean energy solutions, such as solar, wind, and energy efficiency, lead to "direct reductions in the burden of ill-health, enhance community resilience, alleviate poverty, and address global inequity," according to the Lancet report. Clean energy can also provide affordable power to the 300 million in India who currently lack access to reliable electricity.

As the Pope's encyclical makes clear: "Climate change is a global problem with grave implications." Some of the most effective solutions, however, are often local. Government at all levels in India and community leaders are taking more coordinated action to protect communities from higher temperatures. Cities and states across the country are studying the Ahmedabad Heat Action Plan to adopt similar plans. The National Disaster Management Agency is planning to hold a national workshop in New Delhi to address the growing threat of heat. As temperatures continue to rise around the world, these actions can better prepare India's most vulnerable groups from heat's worst impacts before the next heat wave hits.

Contributions from Morgan Capilla, India Initiative MAP Fellow, and Meredith Connolly, Energy Law and Policy Fellow

More information about the Ahmedabad Heat Action Plan, including the Plan itself and supporting materials, is available here.