A World Bank report in November warned that by 2030, over 160-200 million people across India could be exposed to lethal heat waves annually. This year, too, both IMD and private weather forecaster Skymet have warned of a searing summer with most states likely to experience heat waves, bringing into focus the need for governments to prepare for it.

A recent Centre for Policy Research report analysed 37 heat action plans (HAPs) published between 2016 and 2022 across 18 states for the first time, and found that most plans do not take local contexts into account and are under-funded. In an interview, Aditya Valiathan Pillai, co-author of the report “How is India Adapting to Heatwaves,” 2023, along with Tamanna Dalal, tells Indulekha Aravind, while the increase in the number of plans is encouraging, how to find funding for the measures proposed should be a top priority. Excerpts:

Why are heat action plans (HAP) necessary?

Heat is so subjective that one feels it should be dealt with at an inter-personal level – but the reason the state needs to play a role is not everyone has the same adaptive capacity to heat. In the current climate, which is worsening day by day due to increasing emissions, temperatures are reaching a point where it’s affecting human health and productivity and so has society-wide consequences. These consequences accrue to the most vulnerable and that’s often those who are the most exposed and the poorest in society. That’s where the state has to play an equalising role.

Your report says most plans do not take local context into account. What is the impact of this?

The basic idea of localisation is to make sure these policies are sensitive to where the most vulnerable people are in a society. A heat action plan has to be able to map where these people are because if you have a limited budget and capacity, you have to be able to direct resources exactly at the right places. Otherwise, the efforts will be like drops of water in an ocean, getting diffused among millions without any real impact.

There are also questions about the nature of heat itself. Most heat action plans deal in dry heat. But we now know that humid heat is a very potent driver of mortality during a heatwave and when it’s humid, loss of life can happen at a temperature 5-10 degree lower than the dry heat temperature threshold. You have to be able to take that into consideration because you then need your HAP to kick in much earlier. You need to know which areas in a state face the threat of humid heat.

To what extent do the 37 plans you analysed take these factors into account?

Only two of the 37 had vulnerability assessments. None had built in climate projections about where heat was going to increase. Around 10 had temperature thresholds that were different from the IMD, which has a national-level heatwave threshold. But it was unclear if they had incorporated humidity, hot nights, the built-up area ratio, etc. You’re then left with a very rough sketch of what the heat risk looks like for people rather than an accurate and actionable local understanding.

What do HAPs in India get right?

The first plan was notified only in 2013. Ten years down the line, we found HAPs in 18 states and that’s important because these are mainly locally driven and pushed by the guidelines from the central government. We’re starting to see that HAPs are a national phenomenon which is very encouraging. Second, when it comes to the type of solutions proposed, we found there was a really good balance. There was roughly an even split among infrastructure-based solutions and nature-based solutions, information dissemination and behavioural change aspects. We also saw a good balance between short- and long-term responses.

The report also highlights quite a few shortcomings. Which are the ones that need to be addressed first?

We found that only 11 plans even mentioned funding and only three specifically identified sources of funding. The most feasible option is to align all these interventions with various existing central and state schemes. The second is to have more transparency and evaluation. There is no national portal of heat action plans – putting up the latest heat action plans will open these up to evaluation. Third, most consultations that happen at the end of a heat season were with the heads of implementing departments.

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