Most heatwave deaths preventable

The highly distressing death of over 2000 people due to heatwave and related factors in different parts of the country even before the advent of June is a cause for concern.

While most of these deaths were concentrated in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, heatwave deaths were also reported from Odisha, Uttar Pradesh and some other parts of the country including a significant number from Delhi.

This tragedy is all the more disturbing because it is highly avoidable. Most of the heatwave deaths could have been prevented by adopting suitable precautionary steps at the right time.

The world has already entered a dangerous phase of climate change and/ or global warming. While not all aspects of this change are yet fully understood, this much is certain that we should prepare for more scorching days ahead.

An analysis of historical records has revealed that some of the hottest years ever recorded belong to the period of the last two decades or so.

Going by this trend and also keeping in view the failure to curb GHG emissions (a failure which will further accentuate this warming trend), it is very clear that we have to prepare for much more scorching times (in fact weather extremes of all kinds).

Also, it is important to remember that apart from wider forces and trends, several location specific factors also contribute to the micro-climatic conditions which are very relevant to the discomfort felt  by human beings.

In cities, some places are so heavily concretised that there is very little relief in the form of some green cover or some moisture in soil.

On top of this is the high load of air pollution, dust, smoke, heavy congestion and the rush of ever increasing vehicles particularly cars. The impact of wider warming trends and worsening micro-climate situation on birds and animals is telling, but this is not even being monitored carefully let alone any action being taken about it.

In mega cities, many conditions for worsening heat emerge, but the elite are insulated from this in air conditioned rooms and cars. The decision makers or those who influence decision taking are so distanced from the acute discomfort that they do not feel the urgency to provide relief.

In rural areas, the trends of warming are accentuated by micro-climatic conditions created by loss of water bodies, lack of moisture concentration, loss of green cover and related conditions.

Socio-economic factors
These ecological changes should be linked to socio-economic factors. Most victims of heatwave deaths are daily wage workers, migrant workers, homeless and elderly people from poor families, particularly families of migrant workers.

Heatwave deaths in all these sections of people are often due to the combined impact of heat and exhaustion, hunger and malnutrition, overall weakness, denial of adequate cool water and lack of access to medicare in time. Conversely, possibilities of heatwave deaths can be reduced by improving nutrition, availability of clean drinking water and health-care to these sections of society.

Unfortunately, shelters for homeless people have generally been planned only in terms of needs of winter nights. There has not been adequate comprehension of the fact that the homeless and the poor visiting cities for short periods may need these shelters also during day time (particularly in scorching afternoons) during summer months.

This distortion should be removed, shelters should be planned to provide relief from all weather extremes including scorching heat. During summer, these shelters should
have adequate stocks of cool drinking water and also some supplies of ORS, lemon, sugar and salt.

The work of philanthropic organisations to operate outlets for providing clean and drinking water free to people has been curtailed significantly in recent times.
Hours of work at rural job scheme work sites or other similar work sites, should be modified so that work during the hours of extreme heat can be avoided.

Instructions should be given to work sites such as stone mines and crushers, construction work, brick kilns, etc to have prolonged lunch timing to avoid the afternoon sun as much as possible during times of extreme heat.

Adequate water and child care should be provided at all such work sites. Free cool drinking water should be available adequately at all railway and bus stations and related places.

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