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Beat the Heat? India Struggles to Keep Cool During Lockdown


This story was originally published May 12, 2020 by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

With little access to air conditioners or parks during the coronavirus lockdown, India's poor — from farmers to slum-dwellers — could face deadly threats from heat waves this summer, climate and disaster management experts have warned.

Crippling heat waves, drought and water scarcity usually grip India during the summer months of May and June. Authorities regularly issue advisories on how to keep cool, including advice to drink water frequently, find shady spots and use fans.

ARCHIVE PHOTO: A man sleeps under the shade of a tree on a hot summer day at a public park in New Delhi, India, May 27, 2015. | REUTERS/Anindito Mukherjee
ARCHIVE PHOTO: A man sleeps under the shade of a tree on a hot summer day at a public park in New Delhi, India, May 27, 2015. | REUTERS/Anindito Mukherjee

But following that advice could be more difficult this year with most of the country's 1.3 billion people trapped indoors as a result of a lockdown to try to stem spread of the coronavirus.

Conditions will be particularly harsh for the poor living in small, cramped homes with no air conditioners, little ventilation and irregular water and power supplies.

"Vulnerable communities are on the front lines of crises ranging from extreme heat (and) climate change to COVID-19," said Anjali Jaiswal of the U.S.-based Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

"The risks of extreme heat are deadly. Heat is not merely an inconvenience, it kills," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in emailed comments.

India's virus lockdown — enforced beginning March 25 — quickly prompted tens of thousands of poor migrant workers to walk hundreds of miles back to their home villages in blazing heat, with scores falling ill or dying along the way.

The past decade has been India's hottest on record, with extreme heat directly killing about 350 people last year, according to the national weather office.

ARCHIVE PHOTO: A woman transports a drum after filling it with free drinking water supplied by a municipal corporation water tanker at a slum on a hot summer day in New Delhi June 16, 2014. | REUTERS/Anindito Mukherjee
ARCHIVE PHOTO: A woman transports a drum after filling it with free drinking water supplied by a municipal corporation water tanker at a slum on a hot summer day in New Delhi June 16, 2014. | REUTERS/Anindito Mukherjee

Temperatures so far this year have hit 41 degrees Celsius (105 Fahrenheit) in New Delhi. Parts of the western desert state of Rajasthan have recorded temperatures of nearly 45 degrees Celsius (113 Fahrenheit) in recent weeks.

Overall, the Indian Meteorological Department has predicted a warmer-than-usual summer between April and June.

The forecast prompted the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) last month to issue special advice for dealing with heat waves during the lockdown.

It created lists of guidelines for workers ranging from vegetable vendors to farm and construction laborers, police and traffic officers.

For example, it advised employers to schedule strenuous jobs at cooler times of the day, and to increase the frequency and duration of rest breaks for outdoor work — all while employees wear masks and maintain social distancing.

Anup Kumar Srivastava, a drought and heat wave expert at the NDMA, said the agency was working not only to contain COVID-19, but also to save people from the "increasing intensity and severity of heat waves."

High temperatures can cause dehydration, heat exhaustion and heat stroke, and worsen chronic cardiovascular and respiratory diseases.

He said people who suffer such heat-related illnesses could be a challenge for overstretched hospitals already "struggling to cope" with more than 67,000 coronavirus infections.

Srivastava urged states to launch COVID-19 specific heat action plans to "reduce the adverse effects of heat waves."

"Since the majority of the people will be staying at home due to lockdown, ensuring power and water supply during peak heat days will be the priority," he said.

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Huge parts of India already endure a scorching, sometimes deadly, summer, and climate experts say the country is particularly at risk as global heat records are set year after year.

As extreme heat and humidity increase across the globe, they threaten economies and millions of lives in places where it could become fatal to work outdoors, in some cases by 2060, scientists said in a study published last week.

ARCHIVE PHOTO: People sleep on the Yamuna river bed under a railway bridge during a hot summer day in the old quarter of Delhi, India, May 31, 2015. | REUTERS/Adnan Abidi
ARCHIVE PHOTO: People sleep on the Yamuna river bed under a railway bridge during a hot summer day in the old quarter of Delhi, India, May 31, 2015. | REUTERS/Adnan Abidi

India already recorded over 2,000 deaths during a 2015 heat wave. A similar one in the western city of Ahmedabad in 2010 killed more than 1,300 and prompted the creation of South Asia's first heat action plan in 2013.

That plan included early warning text messages to mobile phones, use of public temperature displays and things like broader use of "cool roofs" with reflective surfaces or coatings to reduce temperatures in low-income and informal housing.

Since its launch, the plan has helped prevent an estimated 1,100 deaths each year in Ahmedabad, according to a study published in the Journal of Environmental and Public Health in 2018.

More than 20 of India's 29 states, including eastern Odisha and Bihar, and 100 cities now have or are in the process of enforcing such plans, according to the NRDC, which helped develop the pioneering effort in Ahmedabad.

Cities often face the worst temperatures as heat is reflected off paved surfaces, and because of a lack of trees in some areas, climate experts say.

To beat furnace-like conditions, many people seek respite in air-conditioned public buildings, shops and malls, temples, parks, gardens or under trees — areas known as "cooling spaces" in the heat action plans.

But this year many people will not have access to those spaces, experts warn. Instead they will need simply to drink plenty of water, wear light clothing and stay indoors, said Jaiswal of the NRDC.

Shloka Nath, head of sustainability at Mumbai-based charitable foundation Tata Trusts, said cities need to invest in everything from more cool, green roofs to better ventilation in low-cost housing to deal with growing long-term heat risks.

"Longer, hotter and deadlier summers are poised to become the norm due to climate change," she said. "Given the current COVID-19 crisis ... reducing heat-related exposure is key."

Reporting by Annie Banerji @anniebanerji, Editing by Laurie Goering.

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