Temperatures on the Rise - Transcript

Intro [00:00:00]

This is the Nordic Asia podcast.

Hanna Geschweski [00:00:14]

Welcome to the Nordic Asia podcast, a collaboration to share expertise on Asia across the Nordic region. My name is Anna and I'm a PhD researcher in Human Geography at the Christian Michelsen Institute and the University of Bergen in Norway. In this episode, I'm joined by Dr. Emmanuel Raju and Dr. Chandni Singh to talk about the recent heatwave that hit large parts of South Asia between March and May of this year, where extreme temperatures of far over 40°C led to the death of at least 90 people and serious impacts on people's livelihoods and the environment. And we will also be speaking about how this links to broader trends of climate change and the needs for mitigation and adaptation in the South Asian region. Our first guest, Emmanuel, is an associate professor at the Global Health Section at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark. He is also currently the director of the Copenhagen Center for Disaster Research. Emmanuel is interested in issues related to integrating climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction. Emanuel is also one of 29 climate and disaster researchers who recently published a study on the heatwave in South Asia. It is a rapid analysis that highlights the most severe impacts of the heatwave and also assesses the extent to which these extreme temperatures can be attributed to climate change. Our second guest, Dr. Chandni Singh, is a senior researcher at the Indian Institute for Human Settlements in Bangalore in India. She is also a lead author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or the IPCC, where she covered topics of vulnerability and adaptation in Asia. In the sixth Assessment report that was recently published in March of this year. She works on examining what drives differential vulnerability to climate change and how and why certain people adapt while others don't or can't. So Emmanuel and Chandni the Welcome to the Nordic podcast and thank you so much for making the time and for sharing your knowledge with us today.

Chandni Singh [00:02:14]

It's really nice to be here. Thanks.

Emmanuel Raju [00:02:16]

Thanks for having us.

Hanna Geschweski [00:02:18]

So to get started, maybe to provide some initial context for our listeners, heatwaves and extreme temperatures that go well above 40 degrees, not entirely uncommon in many regions of South Asia and have for long presented a threat to human health and livelihoods. Chandni, you wrote a piece recently in The New York Times where you say that India is no stranger to heat as it faces these hot and these dry summer winds that are also known as loo more or less on yearly basis. So then what exactly made this heatwave that occurred this year so different and possibly worse than previous ones?

Emmanuel Raju [00:02:53]

I think it's the very high temperatures that came so early and coupled with less than average rain than usual, which led to very, very extreme heat conditions. And as Chandni writes, that spring never came to India. And I think that is very unusual. It's because it started so early and it lasted very long and people really didn't have relief for a long period of time, which impacts really a large section of population. We know that this is going to happen more often as temperatures rise, and we definitely need to be better prepared for it. It does have devastating consequences for public health, agriculture, etcetera. The full health, economic fallout, the larger effects of this, I think it will take some more time to sort of realize the full impact of this somehow.

Chandni Singh [00:03:44]

Absolutely. I think there was, of course, this heatwave that came much earlier in the year stayed much longer. And although we talk of it as one heatwave, there were actually 3 or 4 heat waves that happened from March to May in India and Pakistan, of course, as well. So that's one part of it. But as many have said, India is no stranger to heat. And that sort of lulls us into believing that just because we have regular heat and very high temperatures in certain parts of the year, we are used to coping with that. But when you have such long heat of such high intensity, I think that really tips us over. It's a moral hazard where you feel that you can deal with it because Indians and Heat are, you know, we just so familiar with heat. But that wasn't the case this year.

Hanna Geschweski [00:04:29]

As you've already indicated, the range of impacts has been wide. The most devastating was the loss of life. 90 people died, 25 in India and 65 in Pakistan, although it's also very likely that many remained unreported. Could you say a bit more about the wide range of impacts that this heat wave had on people's livelihoods and also who was particularly at risk?

Emmanuel Raju [00:04:53]

As we see particularly from many years of disaster research. And when we look at impacts, it's very often the so-called marginalized groups, vulnerable groups, was very often the hardest hit. And this is the case with majority of disasters. We saw this even during the pandemic. And I think it's important to stress that we're not yet over with the pandemic. And I think people are still dealing with the repercussions that we saw during the pandemic globally and also in India, South Asia, This heat wave somehow or heat waves actually put additional stress on some of these communities that were already impacted during the pandemic. These include groups like the Migrant Labors. These include daily wage earners, people living in informal settlements, people with less access to water, people with less access to cooling facilities, for example, the elderly children. A number of these sections of people who would have seen a far more wider impact. It does hit hard for people who go out every day to earn a daily wage. It wasn't the case for a lot of people like me who can work from home. I'm currently in India. My family lives in a gated community. Access to aircon. Thinking of someone who's going to be working in the heat for an extended period of time over a few months. These are groups of people who would have had a much larger impact. Think about our frontline workers like the traffic police, construction workers, farm workers, etcetera. And I think consequent lack of access to consistent electricity as well, for example, limits the ability to cope with a prolonged heat stress.

Chandni Singh [00:06:35]

Just to add to that, there's a lot of focus on outdoor workers. As Emmanuel rightly said, construction workers, street vendors who are exposed to heat. It's very visible that they are exposed to these heat waves. But there is also an emerging literature that shows that indoor workers, so small and medium industries within households, you can imagine people like weavers, very, very small things like rolling leaves for smoking purposes. Things like that is very home based, jobs that are completely informal. They also generate heat of their own apart from this ambient heat that's outside. So when these two things come together, it can really become unbearable. So that's one group of people that are unspoken a lot about. And then, of course, agricultural labourers, people who do have to work on their farms. March when the heatwave did hit was peak time to harvest wheat in north India and wheat harvesting is mostly done by hand. It's quite a strenuous activity in my own village in western Uttar Pradesh, people spoke about getting up at 5 a.m. to cut the wheat. That's the usual thing people do, and you can't get up any earlier than five because you've got so many household chores as well. So where do you shift this work into the morning, Those kinds of limits, something that was seen. And then finally, of course, as with any kind of extreme event, there are particular sections of the population that are more affected, old nursing and expecting mothers, small children. And these, again, when you intersected with their livelihoods, their income levels, these people get pushed further into that more vulnerable group of people. It's really important for us to not only categorise certain livelihoods as being vulnerable, but then to see the intersections with gender, with caste, with age and income as well.

Hanna Geschweski [00:08:24]

We'll speak about these intersections a bit more at a later point. For now, I would like to talk a bit more about the consequences. Many of these impacts that both of you just mentioned were felt rather immediately in the respective regions and by the respective people. But then they are also those impacts that will only show in the near and distant future. As you also indicated earlier, Emmanuel, So could you say a bit more about these so-called cascading effects that may or will be seen in India and Pakistan and maybe even elsewhere in the world?

Emmanuel Raju [00:08:56]

Sure and I think as Chandni rightly said, there are lots of groups of people who we speak about more often, but there are other groups of people that larger media or the literature doesn't highlight. And particularly a lot of these people work in the informal sector. Having said that, the full sort of impacts, whether it's health, socioeconomic, etcetera, I think it will take some more time for us to be able to say the exact larger impact or the larger economic fallout of this. I think it's still very early, number one. Number two is that there's been some focus on the wheat aspect, particularly because it did affect export of wheat globally. That did take some attention in the media. It's true that there are and there will be cascading effects. And there's been some work globally talking about a much larger focus on cascading events. Also, especially because of the pandemic. There were many other disasters that happened during the pandemic as well. So the combination of all of this makes it worse. If we're talking about the loss of livelihood due to illness, for example, and that itself has many repercussions because if a daily wage earner, if he or she doesn't have the income for that day, there is no food on the table. And if that happens subsequently over weeks and months, then what is the plight of that family or that wage earner? Just a simple example. What we saw during the pandemic, which could very well be true here, is that a lot of people from the migrant labour community, if they didn't work for a day or if they didn't work during a certain period, which means that that loss of income is directly related to remittances, which means that the family back in the village or the semi-urban spaces, the income is not sent back home. There's very less spoken about that aspect of what happens back home. I remember reading an article once about have we forgotten the wives of migrant labour because they were very much dependent on the sources of income that was coming during the pandemic. And I think similar issues might come up with regard to the heat wave as well. These are just few examples that I'm thinking of. But as we said, with regard to cascading effects in a more global scenario, I think agriculture is one sector which will have far reaching consequences and impacts to pick up on this point of cascading impact, the IPCC report this time, this idea of compounding and cascading risks and impacts really came to the fore, compounding where multiple things are happening together. And here exactly what Emmanuel was saying, that you're coming out of a pandemic like COVID 19, and then you've got a compounding with heat risk. But now actually northeast India also seeing severe floods. So a compounding of events taking place, which is really then pushing the most vulnerable again further into vulnerability. On the cascading impact side, I think one of the clearest examples, both from the IPCC report and already there are some indications from the heat wave, is this impact on agricultural yield. And it's not only wheat. I mean, there's, of course, so much attention on wheat because it's such an important staple crop. But horticultural varieties, things like mangoes, lychees, tomatoes, lemons, the costs of them really went up high because at the time that they're supposed to be flowering is when the heat wave happened. And that really affected production and lemons and mangoes. I've heard estimates of even up to 30 to 50% of the yields reducing. So that's the level of loss. So that kind of cascades from rural areas to urban food security and urban food supply. So that's one cross-sector cross-regional cascading of negative impacts. The other thing that I feel hasn't got spoken a lot about is this issue of impacts on health. So while India and Pakistan both have reported that there's reduced mortality and fewer deaths because of these heatwaves, there's a lot of under unreported heat stress and morbidity. We just don't know those numbers. A lot of the poorest people actually would choose not to lose their daily wage and actually go to a hospital and report these kinds of things like headaches and vomiting because of heat. So I feel there's a big underreporting. We don't have mechanisms really to capture this kind of thing. And that can, again, cascade from an individual to a household, as Emanuel was discussing, and loss of wages and then cascading out to not only spatially but temporally over time, you see houses really spiral into poverty further.

Emmanuel Raju [00:13:21]

Also to add to what I was saying, something very important is to be able to highlight heatwaves as disasters. The way the media reports this. In the earlier part of the podcast, Chan was saying, as if it's very normal for us to live in these conditions, but to start recognizing heat waves as disasters, to talk about it in that language makes a difference for policy, for practice, for all of these sectors that are interconnected. I didn't see a lot of that, in my opinion, in these heat waves.

Chandni Singh [00:13:51]

That's so important and to pick it up. Our National Disaster Management Authority in India only in 2017 recognized heatwaves as a disaster, as a as a hazard that we need to have proper standard operating procedures around them and all of that. So that just shows the invisibility of heat and extreme heat in India as a disaster. That's the first thing. And the other thing is that there's so much conversation internationally about climate change and loss and damages because of climate change. For me, this heat wave and the kinds of impacts that we saw, whether it's on wheat crops or it's on people's livability, ability to do their work, these are losses of damages and we need to talk of it in that language. I really feel that that's gone are the days of us saying that losses and damages are happening in the future. This is what loss and damage looks like for the poorest and the most marginalized people.

Emmanuel Raju [00:14:40]

This language of disaster, loss and damage also has serious implications for compensation, For example, because when you talk about floods, when you have other disasters, other hazards that hit our societies, there are compensation packages that come from the government. But how is that going to be translated, for example, in the context of heat, that's a larger discussion somehow that has to start.

Hanna Geschweski [00:15:01]

Very important points that both of you just raised. Now, speaking a bit more widely about how to cope, how to adapt with disasters like this heatwave both of you mentioned, and it is also established in the study that you co-authored, Emanuel and the IPCC report that you were leader of, that the links between human induced climate change and extreme temperature events have been established. We know that the frequency and the intensity of such surges is very likely to increase. So the question is then, how do we deal with that? One way, of course, that's talked about quite a lot is working towards mitigating climate change, which in turn would then reduce this likelihood of extreme heat. But even if climate action, especially by high emitting countries, was addressed more seriously, as it currently is for the foreseeable future, at least, people will continue to be confronted with these heat events. This makes the issue of adaptation that both of you have already mentioned extensively all the more important in the report that you co-authored. You write, and I'm quoting here While some losses will inevitably occur due to the extreme heat, it is misleading to assume that the impacts are inevitable. Adaptation to extreme heat can be effective at reducing mortality. This regard, I was wondering where does India or South Asia more generally stand with regards to adaptation? And also, did the recent heat wave reveal particular adaptation gaps? But then on the other hand, maybe also particular successful measures in dealing with the heat and on this note was going to ask if you could also make the distinction between coping with and adapting to extreme heat, because both of these terms are used quite widely and sometimes interchangeably but assume there's a there's a difference.

Chandni Singh [00:16:41]

That's very valid. The question you asked about the difference between coping and adapting, and so many people tend to conflate the two. So at least the way I understand it and the way it's also mentioned and defined in the IPCC reports is coping is short term strategies to manage risk, while adaptation is long term measures to really reduce risk for certain people and even natural systems. I personally believe that effective adaptation has to be not only to current climate change impacts but also projected climatic risks. So it has that element of planning of, first of all, acknowledging future risks and then putting into place strategies to deal with that future risk. Now, coming back to the first part of your question around what's happening right now in South Asia and specifically in India, around 2010, there were a range of extreme heat events, and then that was the first city in West India to set up a heat action plan at that time. Think it was a very comprehensive plan which had various strategies to adapt to extreme heat from infrastructural strategies like painting your roofs white to reflect sunlight to more institutional and behavioural strategies, things like early warning systems for people, targeted warnings to low income settlements, and also a lot of capacity building around perceiving the risk of heat and then knowing what to do. Relief measures when you are in a heat wave. So I think in that sense and about 2012, the heat action plan comes into effect and it actually reduced mortality rates very significantly. So it's often touted as an example of successful and effective adaptation over the next few years or this past decade. Actually, various cities and states across India have now picked up the model and scaled it up. Telangana, where actually Emanuel is right now, has a state heat action plan. It's interesting to see how from a city then, you know, it's been scaled up to a state and Indian states, of course, are so large, they like little countries in themselves. It's a lot of people being affected by these plans. Overall, there are examples of adaptation plans in India. What is missing is, first of all, they are not comprehensive, they are not long term. They are still very relief oriented. They tend to focus on how do you deal with heat when you are exposed to it. But what about preparing your cities and your labor force for long term climate change? I still see that missing. And one more thing which I feel is really missing is there's this focus on using infrastructure and these kinds of behavioral solutions to deal with heat, but there's not as much on trying to understand how we can protect and also use nature to deal with heat. In my own work, we've been experimenting with not only large green spaces like urban parks to provide heat because they are also often very unequally available to certain sections in a city, but actually look at more fragmented, green nature based solutions, which would be rooftop gardens, balcony gardens, which can provide more localized cooling effects. And that's this work in progress. We need to see if that really helps or not. But I feel that there's really an opportunity here for growing Indian cities, especially to allow urban planning and master plans for cities to have these kinds of strategies in place now, rather than thinking of retrofitting later on, maybe in 2030 or 2040, which I think will be too late already for us.

Emmanuel Raju [00:20:11]

I agree with what Chandni had to say. And just to add to that is how are we going to be ready for the future? And I think that's an important question. Most of our action plans need to be able to answer. We don't have all the solutions, of course, in front of us. But recognizing that when we talk about mitigation and adaptation, I think a large part of focus sometimes happens to sit with the solar or the energy sector, for example. That's where what Shani had to say with regard to making this more comprehensive becomes important, particularly in the context of heat wave. How do we bring in aspects of health? How do we connect this to agriculture? For example, we still dependent on agriculture. We saw this very clearly in this current heat wave. So how do we make our agriculture more resilient? And that sector is connected to other disasters as well. These are some of the missing links that we need to start filling in.

Chandni Singh [00:21:03]

Maybe just to add to that. Think so much of our current adaptation, this is not only in India, it was again the IPCC. So globally there's a lot more adaptation that's taking place, but it's really incremental and not transformational in nature. So you've got little schemes and policies and interventions here and there in particular sectors, but you need to transform the way we do agriculture, the way our labor force is set up and the way our cities are developing or expanding. To do that kind of transformational change, you need concerted action across so many sectors and that's really tough. It's not easy. It needs to be enabled by different things. It's easy for us to say that this doesn't work and this works, but it's really this transformational shift that is very tough to do. And one final point I'd like to say, which I have been harping about ever since the heatwave started, which is that, yes, we can have adaptation strategies, but there's only so much heat you can adapt to. So we cannot think of a country like India adapting to heat endlessly. 45 degrees for a day or two is debilitating. And this is somewhat I'm speaking as someone who sits in an air conditioned office, has an air conditioned home. When I'm in north India right now, I'm not a North Indian. It's very cold, actually. But if you have these kinds of privileges and are still not able to deal with 45°C temperatures, what does it mean for the poorest? So adapting, yes, is important, but there's a limit to that adapting. And that's why the urgency for really deep mitigation is one of the best adaptation strategies to heat, I believe, and we cannot ignore that. And that's really where it ends up being a global problem and needs a global solution.

Hanna Geschweski [00:22:44]

Building on what both of you just said and also what both of you point out in your work, adaptation is not a political and people's ability or their capacity to adapt to extreme events like the recent heatwave. Really, it depends on a variety of structural and individual factors. For example, with regards to the economic background, to gender, to caste based discrimination and so forth. Just thinking of a recent conversation I had with an Indian friend who told me that his rather affluent relatives had just decided to temporarily move to Shimla and Northern Indian Hill Station from their home in Hyderabad to escape the climate and move to a more bearable one. And my friend called his relatives jokingly climate migrants. So this really shows how people have the ability and the agency to protect themselves, while some people do, while other people don't. My question was wondering how can we make sure that these adaptive measures are, of course, efficient and wide ranging and transformative? But then also really keep in mind the justice and the inclusion perspective. And as you write in your essay in The New York Times, how can we make sure that no one and no place is left behind?

Chandni Singh [00:23:53]

The phrasing of no one and No Place Left Behind comes from the Sustainable Development Goals, actually, where we are envisioning this future world by 2030, where no place and no person and no ecosystem is left behind, I guess. I think at least when it comes to the heatwaves and just the way climate action is going, we are leaving some people behind within countries and across the globe. We know that quite clearly. This idea of inclusion when we're thinking about heat adaptation for me is a tough one to answer, actually, because we know that given the kind of heat we are seeing, active cooling might be the only solution. And by that I mean having air conditioners using electricity, which is often fossil fuel based to cool our homes and other spaces, and that comes with the cost that comes with a carbon footprint and that comes with this idea of certain people can cool their spaces while others can't. So there is that inequity in exposure to heat for sure, and then inequity in capacities to deal with heat. The solutions to that. That is something it's almost like a dilemma. As a climate scientist, I face again when I'm sitting in a 45 degree world, it's very difficult to turn off that air conditioner. And that was what actually led to that whole New York Times piece where I was just in this deep dilemma. Again, some of the ways that I can think of is, of course, targeting safety nets towards those who are most exposed. If we are talking about outdoor workers having shade and just cool water and things like that available to them. But these, again, are relief measures, the coping measures. They aren't adaptation strategies really, but they can at least provide relief. And I'm sure Emmanuel maybe can talk to this more about how we can learn from disaster management and long term recovery kinds of studies that are done where you don't only focus on preparedness and relief, but actually longer term recovery and also adaptation. So I feel that that longer term thinking about escalating risk is the way to go. We can't leave it to the most vulnerable to cope and adapt. While we often talk about bottom up approaches, in this case in particular, there needs to be top down support, really, especially in countries like India where there's a lot of inequality in capacity to deal with heat.

Emmanuel Raju [00:26:11]

It's very, very hard. And I agree with Chandni that heat waves and heat is a different ballgame when we talk about adaptation and coping simply because of the dilemmas that Chandni highlighted and like sitting with some of these privileges, it's only unbelievably hard to imagine what some of our poor communities might be experiencing. I remember as a child, for example, we used to have early schools, but I don't think we've ever thought of conceiving that with regard to livelihoods, for example, Chandni said, there are people who go out and work in the farms early in the day, but is that a common practice? I mean, if it's your own farm, you can do it. And that's primarily an informal sort of thing. But if you're working on someone else's farm, what is the plight of some of our informal labour? Right? These are hard questions that I hope will come to the forefront more and more. I'm not sure I have exact solutions, but like Chandni said, I think that we could learn a lot from how the measures from this recovery period could become lessons for the future. Number one. Number two is how are our institutions going to learn from this heat wave in the sense that how are we going to get better at reporting? How are we going to get better at getting access to health infrastructure? How are we going to get better at creating these spaces for people to be able to go to when disasters like heatwaves happen? We have this pretty much for some of the other hazards and a lot of experience with dealing with that, but not really for heatwaves. There is a lot of discussion about the heat action plans, but is that enough? That needs to be rolled out much more widely across all the cities in India and also beyond the cities, for example?

Hanna Geschweski [00:27:47]

Thank you for these perspectives. And with that, we are now coming to an end. I would really like to thank both of you for really showing the complexity of a disaster like the recent heatwave in South Asia. For listeners that would like to know more about Emmanuel's and work on the recent heatwave and also generally in terms of adaptation, you can find links to the full report that Emmanuel co-authored and also Chandni's New York Times piece in our podcast notes. My name is Anna and thank you very much for joining the Nordic Asia podcast showcasing Nordic collaboration in studying Asia.

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