Fri, Oct 19, 2018 - Page 9 News List

Poor people need more practical solutions to cope with rising heat

By Gulrez Shah Azhar

The record-setting heat that blanketed the planet this summer was a sticky reminder that as global temperatures increase, people on the margins of society — the sick, the elderly, and the poor — will suffer disproportionately. Nowhere will this suffering be more acute than in India.

Poverty entraps more people in India than any other country. With about 270 million Indians living below the World Bank’s poverty line of US$1.90 a day, escaping the elements has never been easy. Now, climate change and extreme weather are making it impossible.

In cities, the poor must contend with the effects of “heat islands” — developed areas that trap the sun’s warmth and make temperatures significantly hotter than in rural regions. During heat waves, urban temperatures in India can be extreme even at night, making sleeping agonizing for those without proper shelter or modern cooling methods.

However, life is no easier for India’s rural poor, who are more vulnerable to extreme heat because they often lack access to water, electricity and healthcare.

Research that I conducted with colleagues at US think tank the RAND Corp, Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, and health departments in India found that impoverished communities in central India are at the highest risk, as are populations that are less educated and have fewer amenities.

Our countrywide index shows a strong correlation between low-income status in rural areas and heat vulnerability.

Unfortunately, the perils for the region’s poor are mounting.

According to a report by the World Bank, about 800 million people in South Asia reside in areas where rising temperatures and erratic rainfall are threatening livelihoods and reducing living standards.

If these trends continue, the goal of ending extreme poverty — one of the top objectives of the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development — will remain elusive.

Many rural Indians withering under the heat now see urban migration as their best option, but this, too, will fail to bring lasting relief. Although jobs might be more plentiful in cities, India’s largest metropolitan areas are already bursting; adding millions of climate refugees to underdeveloped slums and shantytowns would be catastrophic.

To avert this new crisis, the Indian authorities must recognize that with heat risks rising, the country’s poor — urban and rural alike — are in desperate need of climate-adaptation strategies.

To be sure, there are no easy solutions. When heat waves hit developed countries, the authorities advise people to stay indoors, shower often, drink plenty of fluids, and keep cool with fans and air conditioning. However, such guidance is of little use for people whose homes lack running water or power.

The World Bank estimates that one in five Indians is poor, while only 61 percent of poor households have reliable electricity and just 6 percent have access to tap water.

Moreover, most of India’s working poor toil as farmers or in small-scale urban manufacturing; for them, escaping the heat means forgoing a paycheck. That is an impossible choice.

While the science of heat-related health damage is in its infancy, studies have linked exposure to extreme temperatures with kidney disease, micronutrient deficiencies and even cognitive damage

Still, there are things that Indian authorities can do to protect the poor during heat waves. For example, community showering centers have been proposed as a way to lower heat-related deaths. While this option would be difficult to implement in areas with chronic water shortages, government-led distribution programs have worked elsewhere.

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