Rising Temperatures, Rising Solutions: South Asia’s Path to Heat Resilience

The year 2023 set a new record for global temperatures with the hottest year on record, with predictions for 2024 to bring even more severe conditions, the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) announced in a report in March 2024, issuing a ‘Red Alert’ to the world. While March 2024 happened to be the 10th straight month to be Earth’s hottest on record (the European Union’s Copernicus announced on April 9), scorching temperatures seared much of South Asia over the past week with mercury touching a maximum of 44.5, 42.2, and 42.8 degrees Celsius across India, Nepal, and Bangladesh cities, respectively.

The resurgence and increasing scale of heat waves in South Asia indicates significant threats to public health, ecosystems, and economic stability, stressing the urgency for action​. Together with partners, ICLEI South Asia, has been assessing impacts across South Asian cities, and implementing strategies aimed at strengthening urban heat resilience. This concerted effort involves the implementation of urban cooling solutions, the dissemination of knowledge products such as a Heat Communication Guide, supporting the development of Heat Action Plans and City Heat Resilience Toolkits, as responses to the impacts of severe heat stress.


Heat Communication Guide for South Asian Cities

The Heat Communication Guide for South Asian Cities encourages a dual approach: while city authorities implement broad strategies to mitigate heat impacts, it also empowers individuals and communities to act individually. This guide aims to improve communication, ensuring citizens are well-informed and prepared to protect themselves during heatwaves.

The Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre (RCCC) and ICLEI South Asia, with support from Climate and Development Knowledge Network (CDKN) and the Norwegian Red Cross, developed a Heat Communication Guide. Tailored for city officials, this guide assists decision makers tasked with devising and executing strategies to mitigate extreme heat effects, offering insights into crafting effective public communication plans focusing on access, relevance, comprehension, and action. It also serves as a valuable tool for organisations and institutions engaged in widespread communication efforts to lessen heat impacts.

Using a collaborative framework, the guide has been designed to streamline the flow of heat-related information from official sources to the public. It starts with various providers such as meteorological services, health agencies, and utility companies collecting city-specific data. This information is then synthesised by city authorities into clear and impact-focused messages. The next step involves intermediaries such as local media and NGOs, which further disseminate the information through channels suitable for community needs. The goal is to equip diverse community groups with the knowledge to take informed actions during heatwave conditions. 

Bridging effective communication stands as a vital link to the implementation of a Heat Action Plan (HAP). This ensures that the data and information sourced from various stakeholders is not only collected and processed, but is also strategically conveyed to drive action. 


Heat Action Plans

Studies have indicated the drastic effects of climate change on the likelihood and severity of heatwaves in South Asian countries — Bangladesh, India, and Nepal — among others. The mid-April heatwave, made at least 30 times more likely due to climate change, brought unprecedented temperatures that disrupted daily life through school closures, infrastructure damage, and health crises. In Bangladesh and India, extreme heat events that historically occurred once in a century are now expected to happen about once every five years, indicating a significant shift in climate patterns. This alarming trend highlights the compounding issue of climate change in South Asia, exacerbating the frequency and intensity of heatwaves.

Following the pioneering efforts of Ahmedabad, India, in implementing South Asia’s first heatwave early warning system and preparedness plan in 2010, numerous cities across the region developed their respective HAPs. These plans address unique challenges of each locality, incorporating measures ranging from public awareness campaigns to the establishment of cooling centres to safeguard communities against the adverse effects of heatwaves​.

In Rajshahi, Bangladesh, and Nepalgunj, Nepal, ICLEI South Asia in collaboration with the RCCC, has made efforts to identify heat thresholds and hotspots. This supported the formulation of targeted interventions to enhance heat resilience, ensuring vulnerable populations in these cities receive the necessary support and resources to withstand extreme heat conditions. 

In Rajshahi, the aim was to support the city in taking proactive actions before the heat season, with the development of HAPs being the ultimate goal. A thorough review to understand heat risks, determining heat thresholds, and identifying heat hotspots through remote sensing helped the city to equip itself better and build their capacity to take action. These steps are vital in preparing for and responding to the intense heat Rajshahi faces, where temperatures regularly soar and humidity intensifies the urban heat island (UHI) effect.

The UHI effect is the phenomenon where urban areas experience significantly warmer temperatures than their surrounding rural areas, primarily due to human activities and alterations of the natural environment. The intensification of the UHI effect is further driven by rapid urbanisation including the expansion of concrete infrastructure, deforestation, the conversion of water bodies into land, the increase of dry and impermeable surfaces, a variety of economic activities, and the negative impacts of climate change. 

For Nepalgunj, efforts entailed similar objectives to address the escalating heat stress as Rajshahi, with workshops organised to build capacity on heatwave risks and actions. Nepalgunj, a significant business hub, regularly experiences extreme temperatures exceeding 40°C, along with high humidity levels, presenting substantial heatwave risks. The collaboration produced several outputs including informational materials in multiple languages and policy briefs with recommendations for short-term and long-term actions to reduce heat stress.


Urban Cooling Solutions and Heat Resilience Toolkits

In Rajkot, India, ICLEI South Asia explored innovative urban cooling solutions to respond to heat stress. These solutions include the promotion of green infrastructure, such as urban forestry and green roofs, and the implementation of reflective surfaces to minimise heat absorption. Such initiatives not only contribute to lowering urban temperatures but also enhance the overall livability and sustainability of cities.

Becoming the first Indian city to pilot an Urban Cooling Action Plan, Rajkot recognised the growing need for sustainable cooling solutions due to the extreme heat and dry summers characteristic of its semi-arid location. Leading the way in addressing the impacts of the UHI effect, this project by ICLEI South Asia in collaboration with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the UNEP-led Cool Coalition, involved an integrated effort by all municipal departments and relevant agencies in Rajkot to implement active and passive cooling solutions. Some of these entailed the promotion of green infrastructure, such as urban forestry and green roofs, the implementation of reflective surfaces to minimise heat absorption, developing both energy-efficient buildings and district-level cooling strategies. 

For instance, a project in Rajkot, India, where ICLEI South Asia, in collaboration with UN Environment and the Swiss Agency for Development, pioneered a district cooling system. Part of a broader effort to implement district energy systems that efficiently manage and reduce the cooling demands of urban environments, this effort aims to create sustainable and efficient cooling solutions by centralising the production and distribution of cooling energy in a district. This can lead to significant reductions in energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions compared to conventional air conditioning systems, which can be crucial in combating the heat stress.

Meanwhile, a City Heat Resilience Toolkit developed by Taru Leading Edge and ICLEI South Asia, for Surat, Gujarat, India, offers a structured approach to enhance urban heat resilience. The toolkit guides through a three-step process: generating evidence to identify root causes of heat stress, determining solutions and their scale, and prioritising solutions for implementation. The solutions delve into addressing technological and infrastructural changes, policy and mandate recommendations, financial incentives, and community participation to combat heat stress, creating a multi-faceted action plan for sustainable urban cooling, encouraging evidence-based planning and integrated actions across various municipal departments​.


Schools at the forefront of heat resilience

Three-quarters of children in South Asia are already exposed to extreme high temperatures compared to only one in three globally, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said, urging authorities to do more to help them beat the heat. According to UNICEF’s 2021 Children’s Climate Risk Index (CCRI), children in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Maldives, and Pakistan are at ‘extremely high risk’ of the impacts of climate change.

In collaboration with TARU Leading Edge, ICLEI South Asia developed a comprehensive emergency and disaster preparedness handbook tailored for urban schools, for response and resilience against the adverse impacts of extreme heat and other climate-induced hazards. The handbook lays out a structured framework to guide schools in creating effective disaster management plans, the importance of preparedness, risk assessment, and the establishment of safety protocols to safeguard children, faculty, and infrastructure. 

A core component of the handbook is the detailed outline of strategies to mitigate risks associated with extreme heat events. This involves implementing early warning systems, enhancing structural and non-structural components of school buildings for heat stress resistance, and fostering a school environment equipped to ensure the continuous safety and education of students during emergencies. Additionally, the handbook underscores the necessity of regular drills and community involvement in disaster preparedness efforts, ensuring that the knowledge and protocols become ingrained within the school’s culture.

Last week, the WMO issued its probabilistic forecast for May where it was highlighted that El Niño and climate change will be driving temperatures to precariously high levels for South Asia and Asia overall. 

Such resources exemplify the knowledge materials available to assist cities in enhancing their efforts and resilience to heat impacts. These tools are among several others, provided by ICLEI South Asia, aimed at supporting cities during challenging times. Corporations and local governments are encouraged to leverage such resources towards harnessing transformative solutions and strategies in their effort to tackle the climate crisis.

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