India’s Leadership Advances Heat-Health Protections
As heat hazards intensify, leaders in India are taking action to protect public health.
Co-authored by Abhiyant Tiwari and Ritika Kapoor of NRDC India
For people in India, the severe heat of 2022 was historic, as extreme temperatures arrived early and stayed late. March 2022 logged the hottest March maximum temperatures ever recorded in the country (33.1° Celsius, nearly 92°F) and the scorching heat threatened India’s wheat yields and farmer livelihoods, furthering a pattern of devastating mental health impacts. Besides those terrible burdens on human health and agriculture, the drag of high temperatures continues to heavily burden the overall economy.
This year, as India assumes the Presidency of the Group of Twenty nations (G20) it is highlighting a theme of “One Earth-One Family-One Future” and ways for the international community to activate transformative actions that could secure a cleaner and greener future. As part of India’s G20 leadership, the country is launching a new working group focused on Disaster Risk Reduction. That effort could not be more urgent: with the 2023 heat season nearly here, forecasters are worried that the effects of El Niño could push temperatures to record-setting levels once again.
National workshop advances preparedness for the 2023 heat season
Leaders in India across government, academia, and civil society have been working to strengthen resilience to warming temperatures for years. One key knowledge sharing platform for heat-health adaptation is the National Disaster Management Authority’s (NDMA) national workshop on heatwaves, held annually right before the start of the heat season, to assess heat preparedness among various stakeholders and to support timely implementation of Heat Action Plans (HAPs).
This year, NDMA, the Government of Maharashtra and the Indian Institute of Technology-Bombay jointly organized the National Workshop on Heatwave 2023 in Mumbai, a city that is already experiencing its second highest maximum temperature on a February day since 2019. The two-day workshop provided a platform for experts to share experiences and lessons learned, and to discuss long-term heatwave response measures and future courses of action. Speakers at this year’s workshop also emphasized the need for integration of various development plans to reduce the risk of heat waves and other climate change impacts nationwide. The workshop attendees included representatives from 21 heat-prone states, 8 central ministries, and additional government departments including the India Meteorological Department (IMD) and Ministry of Health and Family Welfare. Those leaders were joined by experts from more than twenty non-governmental organizations, think tanks, and academic institutions engaged in extreme heat forecasting, adaptation, and risk reduction planning.
Abhiyant Tiwari (who leads NRDC India's work on heat and health resilience) spoke at a workshop panel about heat wave response solutions. This panel highlighted the significance of using locally-calibrated temperature thresholds to shape heat early warning systems and municipal responses to mounting heat risks. In his remarks, Mr. Tiwari noted that, "A universal threshold that defines a heatwave nationwide doesn't exist, which is why it is important to tailor heat responses to meet the needs of local communities."
Identifying heat-vulnerable communities in Jodhpur
NDMA supports national implementation of state and city Heat Action Plans, efforts that help to coordinate local heat response interventions through heat-health early warning systems. Since the first plan launched in city of Ahmedabad a decade ago, HAPs have now reached 23 states and over 100 cities and districts, thanks to the collaboration of NDMA, IMD, and partners such as the Indian Institute of Public Health-Gandhinagar and NRDC.
The state of Rajasthan is historically one of the hardest hit by heat in the country, and heatwaves are considered a disaster by the state authorities. On May 19, 2016, the village of Phalodi (a town in the Jodhpur district) logged the highest daytime temperature reading ever recorded in India at 51°C (123.8 °F), which was ranked third highest among global temperatures observed that day. Given these dangerous temperature trends, along with high population density and continuing urbanization, improving heat preparedness is imperative in a “Tier 2” city like Jodhpur (Tier 2 cities have populations ranging from of 50,000-100,000 and are considered “engines of growth” where economic potential is still developing).
Action is currently underway in Jodhpur to develop a more coordinated heat response. Last year, NRDC and Mahila Housing Trust (MHT) co-organized a workshop for Jodhpur Nagar Nigam (JNN) to initiate a dialogue on development of a local HAP. MHT, building on its strong presence in the city, has been working to facilitate and empower women in poor communities to improve their housing and living conditions. Low-income neighborhoods are more heat-vulnerable because of heightened exposures and limited access to cooling options. In its grassroots program on climate resilience, MHT is installing cool roofs and building heat resilience by enabling legal access to electricity and renewable energy, implementing cooling solutions for thermal discomfort in cities, and extending climate risk insurance to low-income households.
Jodhpur’s HAP, slated for launch this heat season, will prioritize an enhanced focus on the needs of particularly vulnerable groups, identified through a new vulnerability index (VI) that characterizes spatial patterns in heat-sensitive populations, environmental risks, and community assets. The vulnerability score of each ward in the city accounts for local heat exposures, household inhabitants’ physical sensitivity to heat, and adaptive capacity to minimize exposures through resources like urban cooling centers, parks, and water distribution nodes. The power of the VI approach is its flexibility to incorporate a range of relevant data sources—spanning from individual biophysical characteristics to population-level demographic, health, economic, and environmental data. The Jodhpur VI will form the basis for the city’s Heat Action Plan, as the index provides new spatial information for municipal leaders to identify heat exposure risks and prioritize heat-vulnerable areas for targeting local interventions.
Preparing for today’s heat and tomorrow’s climate risks
Applying the long view from NDMA’s national heatwave preparedness workshop, and the power of local knowledge, voices, and actions through Jodhpur’s HAP, NRDC India is working in partnership with local experts in India to protect health, promote resilience, and help households thrive both today and tomorrow, even under a warming climate.