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Heat, drought & water crisis: Take action fast

Patralekha Chatterjee focuses on development issues in India and emerging economies. She can be reached at patralekha.chatterjee@gmail.com
Published : Jun 14, 2019, 12:54 am IST
Updated : Jun 14, 2019, 12:54 am IST

This has adverse consequences on millions of livelihoods, especially smallholder farmers.

Smaller towns and villages in the country also need to develop their own heat action plans. (Representational Image)
 Smaller towns and villages in the country also need to develop their own heat action plans. (Representational Image)

Samuel Johnson, the poet and lexicographer, famously said: “When two Englishmen meet, their first talk is of the weather.”

That most British of traits has now been adopted by many of us, and not because we did not have a choice of a conversation filler.

The weather is no longer just meteorological murmuring. It’s becoming more erratic and extreme, affecting our lives and livelihoods. In 2017 alone, there were 2,726 deaths in India that were directly attributed to extreme weather-related events such as heatwaves, droughts, floods, etc, causing an economic loss of about $13.8 billion in the year, according to Global Climate Risk Index 2019.

This week, alarm bells rang again. Delhi recorded an all-time high of 48 degrees Celsius, with peak power demand in the nation’s capital hitting a record at 6,686 megawatts. Four elderly persons from Tamil Nadu, travelling on a train from Agra to Coimbatore, succumbed to the extreme heat. Rain has hit Kerala, Mumbai and parts of western India. Gujarat is gearing up for Cyclone Vayu, which is expected to intensify. But blistering heatwaves continue to affect much of the country, along with drought and acute water scarcity.

Heartrending stories of water scarcity are coming out of Marathwada and many other places in the country; ponds have disappeared, wells and hand-pumps have dried up and water fights are the norm in Bundelkhand in Uttar Pradesh.

Clearly, erratic and extreme weather are the new norms. The question is: how prepared are we to deal with the situation?

Take extreme heat, one of the main “hot” issues of the day. Some Indian cities have indeed put in place Heat Action Plans. Ahmedabad is a pioneer in this regard. Back in 2017, writing for Citiscope, I had pointed to the city’s Cool Roofs campaign, part of a coping strategy to deal with extreme heat. The mayor, municipal staff and health advocates in Ahmedabad had fanned out into the city’s slums, painting roofs with a lime-based whitewash. The reflective coating was meant to lower indoor temperatures by around three degrees. This helped poor people who stayed indoors and protected them from heatstroke and its health impacts.

Ahmedabad’s Heat Action Plan was launched in 2013, the first by a city in South Asia to try and reduce the savage health effects of heat stress on local people. It was triggered by the 2010 heatwave that had killed over 1,300 people.

One of the key features of Ahmedabad’s Heat Action Plan is a simple, colour-coded early-warning system that alerts residents of predicted extreme temperatures and recommends precautions. The heat alerts point to a range of protective measures that the local authorities must take such as increasing shade access by keeping all gardens and parks open throughout the day, and so on. A key feature of Ahmedabad’s Heat Action Plan is training medical personnel how to spot and treat heat-related ailments.

Local governments have a huge responsibility. Spreading awareness through the traditional media, social media and advertising about the dangers of exposure to extreme heat and the need to drink water constantly is a must. In Ahmedabad, a big focus has been on ensuring emergency access to drinking water. During summer months, the city has 1,000 rehydration centres, run mostly by NGOs, where people can drink water free of cost.

Today, many Indian cities such as Bhubaneswar, Chandrapur and Nagpur have tried to replicate Ahmedabad’s example, realising that saving lives from extreme heat is a low-hanging fruit and deaths from extreme heat are preventable.

Thanks to the “urban heat island” effect, temperatures run hotter in rapidly growing cities than in villages — all the pavements and concrete structures absorb the radiant heat and there are fewer green spaces to counter it, and Indian cities will have to put in place measures that can deal with this challenge.

Smaller towns and villages in the country also need to develop their own heat action plans. As Hem H. Dholakia, senior research associate at the Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW), an independent research organisation, pointed out in a recent article in the India Climate Dialogue: “The 2015 heatwave resulted in over 2,000 deaths in rural Andhra Pradesh. Additionally, heat stress in rural areas adversely impacts local economies. For example, heatwaves could reduce the productivity of agricultural labour by two per cent. Further, extreme heat adversely impacts livestock, leading to reduced milk production in affected areas. This has adverse consequences on millions of livelihoods, especially smallholder farmers. As we continue to scale up heat-warning systems across the country, there is a need to focus on three areas to reduce heat stress-related impacts.”

Acute drought is the other hot issue — nearly 42 per cent of India is “abnormally dry”, which is around six per cent more than last year, according to the Drought Early Warning System (DEWS).

One state in India — Madhya Pradesh — is now discussing a Right to Water legislation to ensure that all residents have access to adequate water supply. The Madhya Pradesh government says it is contemplating legislated guarantee of adequate water as well as healthcare to its citizens. If this works out, this central Indian state will be the first in the country to take such a proactive step on water security.

The details are still being worked out but under the proposed law, tap water connections to all households and ensuring enough water or all other requirements is proposed.

At the Centre, there is a new Jal Shakti (water) ministry, which has ambitious plans to provide piped water connections to every household in India by 2024.

Given this backdrop, and that nearly 50 per cent of India is grappling with drought-like conditions, it was somewhat odd to hear new Union Jal Shakti minister Gajendra Singh Shekhawat labelling the water shortage facing the country as simply “media hype”.

Asked about the acute water shortages in India at a press conference, Mr Shekhawat reportedly said: “Up north, in Himachal and other areas, there is enough water in the dams and reservoirs. The water crisis is not as bad as the hype created by the media.”

The extreme weather patterns that we are now witnessing is worrying and governments at all levels, along with others, need to start putting in place coping measures without any delay. Blaming the media will not help.

Tags: cyclone vayu, global climate risk index, drought early warning system