BHUBANESWAR, April 5 (Thomson Reuters Foundation): From stopping work at brick kilns on very hot days to issuing five-day advance warning of heat waves, Odisha is readying a pioneering action plan to prepare for increasingly deadly summer heat, officials said.
Last summer, several states saw week-long June temperatures that topped 47 degrees Celsius, creating the country’s deadliest heat wave since 1998.
That year, 2,541 people died, more than 2,000 of them in Odisha, according to the Emergency Events Database (EM-DAT), maintained by the Brussels-based Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED).
Although Odisha’s 2015 heat death toll was much lower, at 67, the state government is now preparing a comprehensive action plan to deal with heat stress, aiming for zero casualties from heat waves.
The plan has Bhubaneswar, the state’s major city, as its focus, and is based on the Indian city of Ahmedabad’s heat resilience initiative, begun in 2013.
“These regional heat preparedness and disaster response activities together represent a growing movement to respond to climate threats with strong adaptation strategies that connect and empower vulnerable communities and ultimately save lives,” said Kamal Lochan Mishra, an officer of the Odisha State Disaster Management Authority.
One focus of the plan is poorer workers whose jobs require them to be outside during very hot periods, such as employees at construction sites, brick kilns and stone-crushing units.
The plan, due out soon, looks at “scaling-up and institutionalising protection” during extreme heat for members of the “economically weaker population that work outdoors”, Mishra told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
New guidelines and warnings will be issued and followed up with strict labour law enforcement at construction sites, factories and worksites under the government rural wage-employment guarantee programme, Mishra said.
Mapping is underway to identify vulnerable working populations and outdoor work locations, he said.
EARLY WARNING SYSTEM
Supported by the national meteorological department, Odisha also plans to create a broader and more refined heat early warning system to help build resilience to heat waves.
India’s meteorological department now provides a five-day heat forecast to more than 100 Indian cities, increasing their capacity to warn residents and prepare. Starting in May, the meteorological department will also issue a “heat index” reading for the first time.
Factoring in humidity as well as temperature, the index will more accurately indicate the genuine level of discomfort felt during summer heat.
Temperature and humidity levels, considered together, will determine the threshold for heat wave alerts, Mishra said.
Although temperatures above 40 degrees Celsius for two consecutive days are considered a heat wave, a 37-degree Celsius reading accompanied by high humidity can also result in heat-stress disorders, officials said.
Bhubaneswar experiences up to 85 percent humidity in the summer, with Odisha’s coastal regions facing even higher humidity.
HOSPITALS TO TIGERS
Better technology will help make sure warnings are communicated in time, officials said. Temperature forecasts and heat alerts will be sent as bulk messages on mobile phones, including to the media for wider broadcast.
Electronic screens at busy traffic intersections and market places also will display the information, officials said.
As well, the Odisha State Disaster Management Authority is developing a website and a mobile phone app that would not only provide heat alerts but also help users identify, via maps, heat shelters and drinking water availability along highways throughout the state.
Heat treatment wings also are planned in hospitals, and heat alerts would trigger early morning shifts for schools and offices and restricted public transport to avoid the 11.30 am to 3.30 pm peak heat period.
In the long run, the plan also calls for using more sun-reflective white roofs and energy conserving green buildings, as well as promoting clean energy technology.
Even the Similipal tiger sanctuary in Odisha’s northern Mayurbhanj district has developed plans to deal with dried up watering holes in extreme heat periods.
“We pool hill-stream water by blocking the water flow. In other areas watering holes are replenished by tankers,” Rajesh P. Patel, administrative chief of Mayurbhanj, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“Odisha treats heat wave as a calamity at par with cyclones and floods,” Mishra said – though victims of heat waves still cannot seek federal compensation as India’s government does not accord heat waves disaster status, he said.
Odisha’s capita Bhubaneswar, in particular, has suffered worsening heat in recent years, according to a 2014 vulnerability analysis by the U.N. Development Programme.
Both the average maximum summer temperature and the number of hot days are on the rise, the analysis found.
“Increasing concrete structures and diminishing green cover has turned Bhubaneswar into an urban heat island,” said Sarat Chandra Sahu, the chief of Odisha’s meteorology department.
The city recorded 47 degrees Celsius in May 2013 – its highest-ever temperature – but other summer days are now coming close.
The loss of green areas will make protecting people from extreme summer heat harder, said Piyush Rout, an urban planner and co-founder of the non-profit Local Governance Network.
“The heat mitigation plan talks of increasing poorer people’s access to cool areas, parks and lakes – besides air-conditioned libraries and malls – in Bhubaneswar, but … streams and lakes are choking from squatter colonies or waste dumps,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
He said he also feared efforts to force factories and construction sites to adjust their work day during extreme heat could be hard to enforce.
“To build a strong surveillance and monitoring system to ensure implementation could pose a major challenge,” he said. Contractors likely “will either violate the ban or incur losses – they’ll likely find shortcuts,” Rout said.
Mishra said paying for the new activities to reduce the threat of extreme heat should not be a particular problem, as expenses are relatively low and being spread across departments. That should make the plan possible to replicate in other states, he said.
“Much of the implementation cost of the heat action plan will be mainstreamed and absorbed within planned expenditure of concerned departments and there is no external funding”, except for creating the plan, he said.