When various parts of North India are reeling under extreme heat this summer, parts of Delhi recorded 49 degree celsius temperature on Sunday – a grim reminder of the 2010 event in Ahmedabad city of Gujarat, when a devastating heatwave that year caused 1344 “additional” deaths than 2009.
Intense heat waves (4.50C to 6.40C above the normal temperature) can be disastrous causing various health impacts like heat stroke, heat stress and even death. “Most of these deaths are not recorded, therefore, the actual impact remained unnoticed,” said Dileep Mavlankar, director of India Institute of Public Health-Gandhinagar (IIPH-G). Mavlankar believes that every district should have a plan to tackle heat waves, like the one that Ahmedabad has.
The 2010 incident prompted Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation to devise the nation's first Heat Action Plan (HAP) in 2013. It partnered with the India Institute of Public Health-Gandhinagar (IIPH-G) and the US Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) to prepare this plan – its prominent functions include issuing alerts, giving early warnings and suggesting measures to avert the risk. Now, Ahmedabad has become a case study for several cities of India to learn how to avert, adapt and mitigate heat-related risks.
Mavlankar, who has also worked on Ahmedabad HAP, said that Heat action plan has four major components: first is early warning that also includes issuing “threshold-based alert” – like above 45 degree Red alert, above 43 degree orange alert and above 41 degree yellow alert. Second is public awareness, including media awareness through several meetings about how to protect from heat and what are the consequences of exposure. Third is preparing medical and paramedical staff to tackle heat emergencies to effectively deal with it. Fourth is taking short term measures like creating a water distribution system, and long term measures, running a city wide cool roof program.
“We monitored mortality data and found that mortality was reduced by 30-40 per cent during peak heat waves after effectively implementing HAP,” he said. “Now the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) has taken up that HAPs are prepared and implemented in various cities.” NDMA and Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) are working with 23 heat wave prone states for that.
“An effective heat action plan requires a combination of strong local leadership, interagency coordination, scientific expertise, broad communication strategies, and community engagement. Locally-developed plans are the most effective; one size does not fit all,” says a report by NRDC. For example, Nagpur took the regional approach.
Nagpur has summer months that are dry and arid, with day temperatures ranging between 45ºC and 48ºC. With the help of the Maharashtra State Public Health Department and Nagpur Municipal Corporation, a regional HAP was prepared for Nagpur and four neighbouring cities in 2016. These cities are using social media to create awareness, identify vulnerable people, issue warnings against going out between 12 PM to 4 PM.
In 2020, when Covid-19 posed hurdles in the implementation of HAP, Ahmedabad, led by the city health department modified the plan in accordance with the challenges of Covid-19, as hospitals were already stressed, and people were advised to stay home. “It was possible in Ahmedabad because it had a HAP already. During the Covid-19 pandemic, casualties due to heat waves were overlooked. Nobody recognised the threat of the heat wave,” said Mavlankar.
Effective implementation of HAP is the necessity of the time. Experts have been suggesting that due to climate change, the frequency of heat wave situations have increased. In terms of risk of extreme weather events India stands fifth as per Global Climate Risk Index. A 2017 report published in Science Advances suggests that by the end of the century, if current warming trends continue, the heat waves will be so deadly that even 6 hour exposure can be fatal.
Despite all that, experts believe that there is a lack of awareness and seriousness among policy makers. “Mortality and hospital admissions are not recorded. Despite the fact that it impacts badly, and makes vulnerable populations like senior citizens, children are more prone to risk,” said Mavlankar.