Managing the heat wave

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Managing the heat wave

The year 2015 was recorded as the hottest year in history. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), USA found out that May 2015’s combined average temperature over global land and ocean surfaces was the highest in a 136-year period.

India saw the deaths of over 2,000 people due to the heat wave in 2015, as informed to the Parliament by the Union Minister for Science & Technology and Ministry of Earth Sciences on August 5, 2015. As per this report, 67 people had died in Odisha that has been highly alert about heat wave ever since 1998, when over 2,000 people had died. By  April 18 this year, about 137 deaths were reported from across the country. The actual number may be much more.

Heat wave is a grossly underestimated and under-reported disaster, which kills and affects more people than disasters which strike suddenly. Many heat-related deaths go unreported because they are taken to be the consequences of existing ailments. The National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) lists out heat wave as a natural disaster. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), “Heat wave is a period of abnormally hot weather”.

In layman’s language, it is a prolonged period of excessive heat often combined with excessive humidity. In such cases, the human body starts gaining heat from the atmosphere. Experts believe that in cases of high humidity and temperature, a person can suffer from heat-stress disorders even with the temperature at 37 degree celsius. It leads to heat cramps, heat exhaustion and sunstroke, which are life threatening. Looking into the conditions that prevail this year, we may expect more deaths across the states.

Abnormal heat levels
Caused by climate change-induced global warming and supported by local factors, the deaths in the 1998 heat wave had taken Odisha by shock as more deaths occurred in the coastal belt of the state. The state immediately stood up to the disaster and increased its efforts to cope with it. Odisha’s heat wave management has been largely hailed as a very effective one. The state issued its Heat Wave Management Protocol on March 18, 2016.

As the world witnessed the warmest February in 2016, and was passing through the hottest ever March, Odisha’s temperature was also on a rising trend. Temperature in many districts in western and southern Odisha continued to rise and many began to cross 40 degree celsius by the end of March. More than 50 heat wave deaths have already been reported. Additionally, Odisha was gripped in a water crisis from mid-February.

The conventional heat wave protocol of the state has not worked this year and Bhubaneswar, the state’s capital, has already recorded its highest temperature in history when it touched 45.7 degree celsius on April 10. The state’s dry areas that have experienced temperatures as high as 50 degree celsius in the past, are soaring gradually. The convention has failed because the state has put all its attention on adapting to the heat wave rather than preventing it. Prevention lies in ecological correction measures and the state has to understand it, before it is too late.

The state has been a notorious playing field for climate change but the development models add to the woes as local factors are causing further devastations. Development has put the state on a high desertification path. Being a mineral-rich state, it has been blindly exploiting these resources at the cost of forests, rivers and water bodies. All this has meant a fast land degradation process that furthers heat wave conditions both by fuelling further increase in heat and being impacted by that further negatively.

In 2006, Water Initiatives Odisha (WIO) had warned that many parts of Odisha, especially the western and southern uplands, are already showing symptoms of desertification. The state is ‘developing’ from a drought prone to desert prone region, when severe desertification leads to permanent land damages. In just 13 years, severely degraded land in the state had increased by 136%, barren land had increased by 69% and land converted to non-agricultural uses had increased by 34%. In 1991-92, about 10% of the state’s total geographical area was unfit for agriculture, forest and tree cover excluded. In 2004-05, such spread increased to nearly 17.5% of the state’s total area. The barren land has since increased by almost 50,000 hectares. Agricultural land given away for other purposes has increased by a whooping 2,99,000 hectares. This has added to the heat woes either by degrading water resources or increasing concrete cover. Then, the permanent pastures have also grown by a great margin of 51,000 hectares. And the net sown area of the state has decreased by as high as 2,43,000 hectares indicating the shrinkage of natural resources.

Coal is another culprit in generating heat and draining water resources. Odisha has committed for almost about 75,000 megawatts of coal power plants, using water mostly from major rivers such as Mahanadi and Brahmani. Hence, Odisha has to redesign its intervention and factor in more ecological correction measures to be able to mitigate the impacts of the heat wave in a sustainable manner.

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