Summer in South and South East Asia has historically been synonymous with long, hot, scorching days and pleasant nights. However, in the last few years the rise in mercury above the levels that the human body can withstand as well as the barely significant difference in the day vs night time temperatures, coupled with humidity in the months of July and August, is raising concerns about the potential health hazards posed by extreme temperatures.
In the first two weeks of this month, temperatures across most parts of Pakistan and India were hovering above the 40-degree Celsius mark. On June 5, mercury touched the 45-degree mark in Islamabad, whereas it was recorded at 46 degrees in Rawalpindi. Certain parts of southern Punjab and Sindh recorded temperatures as high as 51 degree Celsius.
Globally, 2015 was the hottest year, making it the fourth time this century that a new record high in temperature was recorded. The heatwave in 2015, where temperatures hovering around 49 degree Celsius for three days, claimed 2,000 lives in Pakistan and 2,500 lives in India. This year too, global temperatures continue to soar. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), there is 90-100 percent probability of an increase in heatwave frequency, severity and duration during this century.
Heatwaves have serious health impacts, exacerbated further by an increase in humidity levels. The elderly, the very young, people with pre-existing health problems, housing issues and those who are economically challenged are the most vulnerable in such a situation; their vulnerability depends on the degree of exposure.
The health impacts of heat levels are more severe in urban areas where residents are exposed to higher and nocturnally sustained temperatures compared to surrounding areas due to a phenomenon called the Urban Heat Island (UHI). These UHIs are caused by a combination of various factors, like heat absorbing surfaces, trapping of hot air between buildings in congested areas, limited vegetation and tree cover, fuel consumption and air conditioning. Factors such as pollution, climate change, urban sprawl, lifestyle changes and urban design increase UHI intensity.
Heat is significantly affecting natural habitat as well. Wild fires, especially during the pre-monsoon season, are a regular occurrence on the Margalla hills surrounding Islamabad. Another severe impact of the increasing levels of heat is felt on water resources which evaporate faster, thereby adding to socioeconomic vulnerability.
Heatwaves are silent killers. Mortality rises sharply a day or two after extreme temperatures, meaning there is a?short window of opportunity for effective action.
The increasing health risks due to heatwaves require urgent attention and advance preparation, underlining the need for a holistic heatwave management planning. Examples from developed countries show that much of the reduced mortality across Europe, Canada and the US can be attributed to early warning systems.
With the increase in extreme heat events and their potentially large impacts on health, there is a need for national action to reduce the risks of heatwaves. The development of a national heatwave management plan should be the first step towards creating a conducive environment for planning, implementation and monitoring of heatwave management initiatives – to be guided by the relevant ministries, departments, civil society organisations, non-governmental organisations and other key stakeholders.
Effective heatwave management requires that individuals, families and other related stakeholders are prepared for and able to manage the possible impacts. Short and long-term interventions need to be considered at the planning stage to improve preparedness for extreme heat events in the short term. Long term goals would include climate and heat risk reduction through policy development, regulation and heat standard setting for all urban planning. It is imperative to develop strategies for heat alert, public awareness, community outreach, emergency response readiness and community engagement. The objective of heat action plans should be to identify ‘hotspot’ locations and then strengthen preparedness for heatwave management in those areas.
While developing a national heat action plan, the priority areas for consideration would ideally include institutional and capacity building, resource mobilisation and developing effective communication strategies. We must remember sound research for evidence based policymaking is the foundation for developing an effective plan.
The writer is a consultant with LEAD
Pakistan. Email: drmehr5gmail.com