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The 2020 Call For Code Global Challenge by IBM is calling on developers across the globe to find technological solutions to halt and reverse the impact of Climate Change. To extend support for the initiative, Nature inFocus is publishing a series of Climate Change stories from around the country. 

In an especially cruel twist of fate, some of the Indian states that are worst affected by the COVID-19 pandemic are also those which suffer the most from deaths and illnesses due to extreme heat waves in the summer. The year 2020 is following the sordid trajectory of the previous years with the summer heat literally setting electricity poles ablaze in some parts of the country. On May 24, the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) declared that heat wave-like conditions were observed in several states, including Haryana, New Delhi, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Telangana, parts of Maharashtra, and Gujarat. It was in May 2016, that the town of Phalodi in Rajasthan witnessed the hottest day ever in India’s history, when a maximum temperature of 51°C was recorded. The years 2015 and 2019 recorded the longest heat waves in India, with 40°C plus temperatures lasting for more than a month and in some regions for more than 45 days.

'Future of the human climate niche', a study published by a team of international scientists in the journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, earlier this month, states that by the year 2070, if carbon emissions continue unabated, 3.5 billion people might be living outside the climate niche that humans have thrived in for over 6,000 years. The study estimates that, in 50 years, over 1.2 billion Indians will be living in regions that are as hot as the Sahara Desert is now. Since the year 2010, more than 6,000 people have died across India due to extreme heat, with 1,344 people dying in May 2010 alone, in the city of Ahmedabad. Heat-related disasters might not be as visible as a sudden storm surge or a pandemic, but they are as real a threat to our survival, especially here in India, as any of the other extremes that are experienced due to climate change.

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In the current climate, mean annual temperatures >290°C are restricted to the small dark areas in the Sahara region. By the year 2070, if carbon emissions continue unabated, 3.5 billion people might be living outside the climate niche that humans have thrived in for over 6,000 years. Graph courtesy “Future of the Human Climate Niche”: PNAS May 2020

Adapting to extreme heat 

The enormous death toll of the 2010 heat wave in Ahmedabad spurred city officials and other concerned bodies into action. The Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation (AMC) implemented the Ahmedabad Heat Action Plan in 2013 with contributions from national and international academic experts and learnings from global best practices. Anjali Jaiswal, of the US-based, Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) said, “Heat Action Plans are comprehensive early warning systems and preparedness plans with the objectives of public awareness and community outreach, interagency coordination, and capacity building among health care professionals; ultimately to reduce heat exposure and promote adaptive measures.” The NRDC has been working with various Indian agencies since 2009 to deal with issues related to climate change. The organisation, along with the Indian Institute of Public Health – Gandhinagar (IIPH-G) and the AMC was instrumental in developing the Ahmedabad Heat Action Plan. Since its inception, it has consistently shown positive results, with a 2018 study published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Environmental and Public Health (JEPH) stating that an estimated 1,190 deaths were avoided every year in Ahmedabad since the Plan’s implementation. 

“Today, heat waves are already a concern in the rapidly growing and urbanising South Asia and they will likely worsen in a warming world. So HAP is a simple way of saving lives without high capital investment,” said Priya Dutta, senior research associate at the IIPH-G. She added, “Along with our partners, we are pioneering the development of threshold-based heat action plans and city-specific heat-health thresholds. Through this, we aim to provide a framework for providing early warnings and the implementation of effective action to reduce the negative health impacts of exposure to extreme heat.” 

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A poster published by the Government of Gujarat on how to protect yourself from severe heat waves.

Following the success of the Ahmedabad Heat Action Plan, many heat-prone cities and regions across India, with assistance from the National Disaster Management Agency (NDMA), have developed their own HAPs. As things stand now, over 100 cities and districts in 23 Indian states are working on or already have their own HAPs. “At the national level, NDMA is leading efforts by supporting local heat action plans through the recently updated NDMA Heat Guidelines 2019,” said Jaiswal of the NRDC. She added, “The IMD forecasts are vital too as they give communities lead-time to prepare for extreme heat.” According to the NDMA, there were more than 24,000 heat-related deaths between the years 1992 and 2015 in India. Through the implementation of various HAPs, the agency says mortality rates have been brought down. In the years 2016, ’17 and ’18, there were 1,111, 384 and 25 heat-related deaths respectively as compared to 2,040 in 2015. 

Smart resilience 

The Ahmedabad plan as well other HAPs in India have used innovative solutions to deal with extreme heat. “HAPs can protect vulnerable people and livelihoods as well as incentivise behavioural change. For example, shifting work hours to avoid high mid-day temperatures, as was done in Kerala recently,” says Chandni Singh, a researcher at the Indian Institute of Human Settlements (IIHS), Bengaluru. Singh is currently leading a review that is looking at how 53 Indian cities with one million plus populations are planning and implementing climate change adaptation. She added, “To me, the biggest innovation is using a mix of infrastructural interventions and behavioural interventions.”

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Dwellings on the banks of the Sabarmati river in Ahmedabad. People in slums are especially vulnerable to heat waves. Photograph by Emmanuel Dyan, courtesy Flickr under the CC BY 2.0 license.

The ‘cool roofs’ of Ahmedabad have been one of the most successful components of the Ahmedabad Heat Action Plan. Initially developed by the Mahila Housing Sewa Trust (MHT), ‘cool roofs’ are made from locally available material such as paper waste and coconut husks. The roofs are also painted white to absorb as little sunlight as possible. This resulted in indoor temperatures in the summer reducing by 3-5 degrees compared to the temperature outside. While the MHT had installed 300 such roofs in Ahmedabad’s slums earlier, by 2019, about 1,500 roofs in slums were converted to ‘cool roofs’, under the Ahmedabad Heat Action Plan. Following the success of the program in Ahmedabad, MHT has also expanded their ‘cool roof’ and other climate-resilience initiatives to slums in eight other Indian cities. 

HAPs also feature other micro and macro technological interventions. As Jaiswal said, “There are several technological innovations in HAPs. First, the early warning systems to over 300 cities in India is critical to allowing communities to prepare. Second, social media, including SMS and Whatsapp are critical to warning communities about heat and for inter-agency communication. Third, simple solutions like ice-packs in urban health centres are essential for saving lives. Fourth, of course, are cost-effective solutions like ‘cool roofs’.” 

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Initially developed by the Mahila Housing Sewa Trust (MHT), ‘cool roofs’ are made from locally available material such as paper waste and coconut husks. The roofs are also painted white to absorb as little sunlight as possible. By 2019, about 1,500 roofs in slums were converted to ‘cool roofs’, under the AHAP. Photograph courtesy Mahila Housing Sewa Trust

An invisible threat 

The greatest obstacle to dealing with extreme heat in India is the invisibility of the crisis. Singh explains, “Heat remains less discussed because it is not as visible as floods. However, it is a severe risk and projected to increase in the future. Cities in India are not only experiencing heat stress but are also creating heat through increased built-up area, decreasing urban green cover and maladaptive building materials that trap heat.” While smaller cities like Nagpur, Surat, Bhubaneswar, and Hyderabad have HAPs in place, a gargantuan city like Delhi is still to come up with such a plan. The expansion of HAPs to include more holistic solutions is also a necessary step yet to be implemented in India. “HAPs should include preserving greenery, water bodies and other natural capital in cities. Another aspect is making energy-efficient cooling available at scale; this could include district-level heating and cooling systems. A risk mapping of vulnerable populations will help in better targeting services. Further, we have the opportunity to re-imagine India's Smart Cities so that resilience can be built right from the beginning,” said Hem Dholakia of Delhi-based, Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW).

Even as India is attempting to deal with this pandemic as best as it can, it is also important to develop resilience to long-term threats such as extreme heat, which is already the new normal. The AHAP and other heat action plans are necessary steps in the right direction. And, with the guidance of nodal agencies such as the NDMA, there is a good case to be made that India will be ready to handle the rising temperatures. 

Call For Code is a global initiative that encourages developers to come up with appropriate tech solutions for some of the world’s most pressing problems. In the last two years, more than 210,000 developers across 165 countries have built over 8,000 applications, attaching a cause to their passion. If you are a developer interested in coding for a better world, visit the IBM Call For Code 2020 website to get started. You will find Starter Kits and other resources here.