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India's Red-Hot Problem

Fighting deadly heat waves is futile, but preparing for them might wind up saving thousands of lives across the country.

A fisherman walks on the banks of the Daman Ganga River in Vapi, Gujarat state Graham Crouch/The New York Times/Redux

Thanks to climate change, extreme heat waves have become a sign of the times—especially in India, where temperatures soar summer after summer and heat-related death tolls reach the thousands. But in India, as in any country, building awareness around the dangers of heat is a challenge. Warnings don't grab the attention of the public like other types of extreme weather does, so dangerously high temperatures don't often register as a major health threat.

To tackle this, the Indian Council on Medical Research, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the University of Michigan brought scientists, government organizations, and other health and climate change experts together for a workshop in 2009. NRDC had a seat at the table—but just talking about how to protect communities was not what representatives had in mind.

Anjali Jaiswal [director of NRDC’s India Initiative] stood up and basically said several times, ‘We can talk, but we know enough to act,'” recalls Kim Knowlton, an NRDC senior scientist and deputy director of the organization's Science Center. “We had to figure out how to put into action what we knew already would benefit people’s health.”

A year after that conference, Ahmedabad, in the western Indian state of Gujarat, suffered its worst heat wave in history. Temperatures hit 116 degrees Fahrenheit and caused more than 1,300 deaths. It was just the kind of wake-up call needed to galvanize the city’s public-health community and raise the level of concern from lukewarm to boiling.

Ahmedabad, a high-tech capital and home to a regional branch of the Indian Institute of Public Health, already had the resources for—and interest in—creating a strategic plan for the next deadly heat wave. The institute and NRDC brought together 45 local experts, including doctors, emergency-management teams, and researchers, to combat what Knowlton calls “a public health crisis in the making.”

NRDC and its local partners held countless focus groups, roundtables, and one-on-one meetings everywhere from hospitals and labor departments to slums and construction sites. They identified the most vulnerable population groups and discovered what kind of outreach, preparation, and training could actually reduce the risk of heat-related health issues.

By the summer of 2013, the Ahmedabad Heat Action Plan was in place. It consists of four major components:

1. Public awareness: Through pamphlets, advertisements, and public-service messages, locals receive information on the dangers of extreme heat and learn how to protect themselves. Along with being distributed through local media channels, the messages come via SMS, text messages, e-mail, and chat apps like WhatsApp.

2. Early-warning systems: When blazing temperatures are on the horizon, an alert goes out to government agencies, health officials, hospitals, first responders, community groups, and media outlets. Those groups will then act quickly. For example, transportation officials turn bus stops into aid stations with shade and water, and temple and library staff convert their spaces into cooling centers.

3. More medical support: To reduce the death toll associated with extreme heat waves, health workers learn how to diagnose heat-related illnesses and are given the proper tools, supplies, and training to treat them.

4. Extra protections for the vulnerable: Those who live in 380 areas deemed high-risk get special attention, including more intense education about prevention and improved access to drinking water and cooling spaces.

Heat waves are not going away. In 2015, more than 2,500 people died in another Indian scorcher. But Ahmedabad is proof that local communities can be proactive. “It doesn’t take millions of dollars and dozens of years, but it does take coordination and effort,” says Knowlton. “It gives city officials and residents time to think about their access to drinking water and finding shade in nearby malls, libraries, and other places.”

Word of Ahmedabad's success is spreading. In the spring of 2015, NRDC and its partners held a national workshop to help other Indian cities and states create a heat-action plan of their own. “You don’t have to sell people in India that it’s getting hotter and that climate change is threatening their health,” Knowlton says. “They want to stay healthy, they’re ready to act, and it’s beautiful to see.”

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