Solutions for Extreme Heat as India Battles Covid

Co-authored with Prima Madan

India, currently battling a severe second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, is facing multiple climate stressors simultaneously. Most of the country is already facing peak summer heat, and this week, many coastal states are also dealing with the effects of Cyclone Tauktoe. Fueled by climate change, heatwaves and other extreme weather events are longer, more frequent, and more intense. Long-term resilience is critical to build a public health infrastructure that is robust enough to withstand severe short-term crises such as the current pandemic and persistent climate stressors such as extreme heat. Fortunately, many states and cities are taking action.

To discuss preparedness strategies for extreme weather amidst the COVID-19, climate health experts and government officials got together virtually this week in India in a panel discussion titled: Strengthening Preparedness and Response to Extreme Heat Through Heat Action Plans and Cool Roofs.” Organized by NRDC and partners Climate Trends, Indian Institute of Public Health-Gandhinagar (IIPH-G), Administrative Staff College of India (ASCI), and Mahila Housing SEWA Trust (MHT), panelists highlighted how multiple strategies are effective in building resilience to extreme heat. Heat action plans (HAPs), incorporating early warning systems, preparedness strategies and community outreach, help reduce mortality and enhance community resilience to extreme heat episodes. Drawing on lessons from the ground-breaking 2013 Ahmedabad Heat Action Plan, many cities and states in India are implementing similar plans. Additionally, strategies such as cool roofs, which help keep indoor temperatures low and address the urban heat island challenge, are effective in providing low-cost cooling access. 

Experts Panel Discussing Solutions to Extreme Heat

 Highlights from the webinar are below:

Extreme heat is likely to exacerbate the public health crisis  

  • The ongoing COVID19 pandemic will inevitably overlap with the health impacts of heat waves. Dr Mavalankar, Director- Indian Institute of Public Health- Gandhinagar (IIPH-G) noted how the ongoing lockdown on account of COVID-19 may cause added complications for heat waves. Heat waves could prove to be more deadly in times of COVID pandemic as they aggravates pre-existing comorbidities. Building adequate resilient systems is urgent and can help us minimize health and home impacts.
  • Dr. Mavalankar also discussed the importance of having an institutional response to heat and other extreme weather events from a public health perspective. He noted how, in order to build effectively resilient communities to counter these extreme weather events caused by climate change, there is a need to build localized capacity in terms of health infrastructure, governance structures as well as adequate early warning systems. It is important that actions as well as decisions be localized as well, to maximize public health benefits.

National agencies are helping guide heat response

  • The National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) is at the forefront of heatwave management in the country. Dr. Thiruppugazh, Additional Secretary- NDMA, emphasized the need for long term mitigation through passive cooling measures, better civic planning, more urban and rural water bodies, and a better understanding of the factors impacting heat retention in cities and towns in India. In-spite of the ongoing pandemic, we have strived to improve the preparedness and response of states and cities to heat wave management.
  • NDMA has recently launched the Heat Season 2021 Cool Roofs Challenge to help mitigate against heat impacts. The Cool Roofs Challenge encourages cities to implement cool roofs as part of their Heat Action Plans (HAPs). Dr. Thiruppugazh stressed the need for initiatives like the cool roofs challenge to be more than one time efforts. Like Heat Action Plans, these should be institutionalized to be able to implement at scale. NDMA also recently released a new guide for house owners on roof cooling solutions to help move states and cities toward action on heat mitigation. As awareness is also an issue, Dr. Thiruppugazh recommended educating people more widely on cool roofs through a big IEC campaign.
  • Early warning systems and forecasting are critical to help prepare response strategies to extreme heat. Dr. S.C. Bhan, from the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD), highlighted how heat waves and other climate emergencies are increasing, but agencies such as NDMA have stepped up to protect lives after the 2015 Heat Wave. IMD has been making upgrades and changes to the early warning systems in response to user demands and has now included warm nights, as well regular, granular forecasts in urban as well as rural areas.

States and cities are implementing Heat Action Plans and Cool Roofs

  • The Government of Telangana aims to make Telangana a “Cool State” and build the resilience of communities to extreme heat. The state is implementing the Energy Conservation Building Code, which includes installation of cool roofs in new commercial buildings, and cool roofs have now being included as a Corporate Social Responsibility activity under GHMC for accelerating adoption in vulnerable communities. Mr. Devender Reddy, Chief City Planner, Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation highlighted the state’s efforts and noted that the focus on cool roofs in the state is further strengthened by their inclusion in the new ‘Telangana Municipalities Act 2019’.
  • When implemented on a large scale, cool roofs reduce the urban heat island effect, and act as a low-cost solution to reduce city-wide need for cooling while also safeguarding against the negative health impacts of extreme heat. Dr. Vishal Garg, Professor- International Institute for Information Technology- Hyderabad (IIIT-H), highlighted how cool roofs, as locally implementable traditional technology, help in increasing thermal comfort, saving energy and saving lives. 

During the webinar, NRDC and partners released two key publications—“Expanding Heat Resilience Across India: Highlights from Heat Action Plans, May 2021,” an updated issue brief highlighting actions taken by different states and cities on extreme heat in 2020 and “Protecting People From The Health Risks of Climate Change: Local Experts Team Up in Ahmedabad,” a fact sheet on the co-benefits of climate action.

Responding to the COVID19 crisis is the current priority of governments and institutions the world over. As heat waves and other more long-term emergencies continue to threaten human health, we must build resilience and find solutions to mitigate the impacts of multiple crisis at the same time. In a world where multiple crisis exists in parallel, the solutions must also exist in parallel.

Prima Madan is an energy efficiency expert and a consultant with NRDC’s India program.