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Deadly heatwaves from climate change endanger India’s development

A recently study led by researchers at the University of Cambridge highlights the alarming extent to which climate change has fueled deadly heatwaves in India. The research is published in the journal PLOS Climate,

The report indicates that in 2022, nearly 90 percent of the Indian population became more susceptible to public health issues, food shortages, and increased risk of death due to these extreme heat events.

At present, India employs a national Climate Vulnerability Indicator (CVI) to gauge the nation’s vulnerability to climate change and develop appropriate adaptation strategies. This comprehensive index incorporates a range of socioeconomic, biophysical, institutional, and infrastructural factors. 

However, the CVI currently lacks a crucial element: a physical risk indicator for heatwaves. This would allow policymakers to better understand the true impact of extreme heat on the Indian population.

The groundbreaking study is the first to integrate a “heat index” as a means of assessing the recurring effects of deadly heatwaves on India’s population. This innovative index calculates the perceived temperature that the human body experiences. It is then compared to the surrounding conditions when humidity and air temperature are combined.

Current heat measurement system is insufficient

According to the research, the existing CVI underestimates the primary risks and threats posed by heatwaves to India’s inhabitants. This is due to the absence of any heat stress measure. This omission makes it difficult to pinpoint the most vulnerable regions, such as Delhi and other large urban areas. It also hinders the identification of areas where non-climate, structural, and socio-economic factors intersect with climate extremes. This potentially increases vulnerability to extreme heat impacts.

Study first author Dr. Ramit Debnath elaborated on the implications of their findings. “A heat stress measure which identifies the impacts and the parts of India where the population is most vulnerable to recurring heatwaves would help to make state Heat Action Plans being created across India more effective.”

To determine the severity categories, the researchers utilized publicly available data on state-level climate vulnerability indicators. The data came from the Indian Government’s National Data & Analytics Platform. They then compared India’s progress on its UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) over a 20-year period (2001-2021) with the number of extreme weather-related fatalities during the same timeframe.

The study’s results revealed that India’s global ranking according to the United Nations Sustainable Development Group has declined over the past 20 years. This is primarily because the nation has failed to achieve the targets for 11 of the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals. These goals are all vital for SDG 13 (Climate Action). 

Findings from previous studies on deadly heatwaves

Recent studies have demonstrated that the persistent deadly heatwaves in India are posing an increasing strain on the country’s economy and public health resources. Long-term projections indicate that by 2050, these heatwaves will affect over 300 million people. By 2100, they will lower the quality of life for nearly 600 million Indians. However, there has been insufficient attention paid to the short-term consequences of these heatwaves. There has also been no development of strategies to address them.

Furthermore, the study revealed that the absence of a physical risk measure for heatwaves can hinder progress in multiple Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This includes SDG 2 (Zero Hunger), SDG 3 (Good Health and Well-Being), SDG 5 (Gender Equality), SDG 8 (Decent Work and Economic Growth), SDG 9 (Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure), SDG 10 (Reduced Inequalities), and SDG 15 (Life on Land).

A smaller case study of urban sustainability found that residents of Delhi experienced some of the most challenging conditions. Almost the entire National Capital Region (NCR) reached danger levels on the index during a heatwave.

“Delhi’s heat vulnerability will exaggerate indoor overheating especially for those people in affordable housing who have fewer resources to cool themselves. Social cooling practices need to be understood to mitigate and adapt to heat-related health and energy burdens,” explained study co-author Dr. Ronita Bardhan.

This underscores the urgent need for a more comprehensive understanding of heat stress. The development of targeted, effective policies to protect India’s population from the escalating dangers posed by climate change is mandatory.

Potential solutions gained from the study

The researchers suggest several potential solutions to address the growing threat of heatwaves:

Improving Measurement

Policymakers must take action to enhance the assessment of the multi-dimensional nature of climate vulnerability and the impact of climate events on SDGs.

Prevent overheating in low-income housing

From an urban sustainability perspective, implementing critical policy measures that promote resilient methods of mitigation and adaptation in cities like Delhi, which are particularly susceptible to heatwaves, is crucial. For example, see this video on preventing overheating in low-income housing:

Build Partnerships

Strengthening partnerships with neighboring countries on the Indian subcontinent is essential for developing heatwave resilience.

International lessons

India can learn from heatwave preparedness leaders like Australia, the U.S., the U.K., and the E.U. to create comprehensive heatwave plans.

This study was supported in part by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Quadrature Climate Foundation, the Laudes Foundation, the Keynes Fund, and the Africa Alborado Grant. The findings emphasize the need for urgent action to address the short-term effects of deadly heatwaves in India. It also addresses the development of effective strategies to mitigate their impacts on the economy, public health, and the overall quality of life.

More about deadly heatwaves

Deadly heatwaves are extended periods of unusually high temperatures that can have severe consequences for humans, animals, and the environment. As global temperatures continue to rise due to climate change, heatwaves are becoming more frequent, intense, and prolonged, exacerbating their impacts. 

Some key aspects of heatwaves and their consequences are as follows:

Human Health

Heatwaves can cause a range of health issues. These include heat exhaustion, heatstroke, dehydration, and exacerbation of pre-existing medical conditions such as cardiovascular and respiratory diseases. Vulnerable populations, such as the elderly, children, and individuals with chronic illnesses, are at a higher risk during deadly heatwaves. Excessive heat can also lead to increased mortality rates.

Agriculture and Food Security

Prolonged periods of high temperatures can negatively affect crop growth, leading to reduced yields and food shortages. Heat stress can damage plants, disrupt pollination, and increase the evaporation of water from the soil, resulting in drought conditions. Livestock can also suffer from heat stress, affecting their productivity and survival.

Water Resources

Heatwaves can cause increased evaporation from water bodies. This can lead to a reduction in the availability of water for humans, animals, and plants. Deadly heatwaves can also exacerbate water scarcity issues. This is especially concerning in regions that are already experiencing water stress due to climate change or over-extraction.

Energy Demand from Deadly Heatwaves

As people seek to cool their homes and workplaces during deadly heatwaves, the demand for electricity rises. In particular, electric grid stress from air conditioning systems can surge. This can strain energy infrastructure and result in power outages, further exacerbating the heat-related risks to human health and wellbeing.

Urban Heat Island Effect

Urban areas tend to experience higher temperatures than rural areas. This is due to the prevalence of heat-absorbing materials, such as concrete and asphalt, and the lack of green spaces. This phenomenon, known as the urban heat island effect, can exacerbate the impacts of heatwaves on city dwellers.

Ecosystems and Wildlife

Heatwaves can disrupt ecosystems, affecting the behavior, reproduction, and survival of various species. Prolonged high temperatures can also lead to wildfires. This causes habitat loss, air pollution, and the release of large amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which further contributes to climate change.

To mitigate the impacts of deadly heatwaves, it is essential to develop and implement adaptation strategies. These might include early warning systems, public health interventions, urban planning focused on reducing heat island effects, and sustainable agriculture and water management practices. 

In the long term, addressing the root causes of climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions is crucial to curbing the frequency and intensity of heatwaves.


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