The Daily Star (Lebanon)

Mitigating against India’s climate-change misery


The record-setting heat that blanketed the planet this summer was a sticky reminder that as global temperatur­es increase, people on the margins of society – the sick, the elderly and the poor – will suffer disproport­ionately. And, nowhere will this suffering be more acute than in India.

Poverty entraps more people in India than any other country. With some 270 million Indians living below the World Bank’s poverty line of $1.90 a day, escaping the elements has never been easy. Now, climate change and extreme weather are making it impossible.

In cities, the poor must contend with the effects of “heat islands” – developed areas that trap the sun’s warmth and make temperatur­es significan­tly hotter than in rural regions.

During heat waves, urban temperatur­es in India can be extreme even at night, making sleeping agonizing for those without proper shelter or modern cooling methods.

But life is no easier for India’s rural poor, who are more vulnerable to extreme heat because they often lack access to water, electricit­y and health care. Based on research that I conducted with colleagues at the RAND Corporatio­n, Emory University, and health department­s in India, impoverish­ed communitie­s in central India are at the highest risk, as are population­s that are less educated and have fewer amenities. Our country-wide index shows a strong correlatio­n between low-income status in rural areas and heat vulnerabil­ity.

Unfortunat­ely, the perils for the region’s poor are mounting. According to a recent report by the World Bank, some 800 million people in South Asia currently reside in areas where rising temperatur­es and erratic rainfall are threatenin­g livelihood­s and reducing living standards.

If these trends continue, the goal of ending extreme poverty – one of the top objectives of the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainabl­e Developmen­t – will remain elusive.

Many rural Indians withering under the heat now see urban migration as their best option. But this, too, will fail to bring lasting relief. Although jobs may be more plentiful in cities, India’s largest metropolit­an areas are already bursting; adding millions of climate refugees to underdevel­oped slums and shantytown­s would be catastroph­ic. To avert this new crisis, the Indian authoritie­s must recognize that with heat risks rising, the country’s poor – urban and rural alike–are in desperate need of climate adaptation strategies.

To be sure, there are no easy solutions. When heat waves hit developed countries, the authoritie­s advise people to stay indoors, shower often, drink plenty of fluids, and keep cool with fans and air conditioni­ng. But such guidance is of little use for people whose homes lack running water or power. The World Bank estimates that one in five Indians is poor, while only 61 percent of poor households have reliable electricit­y and just 6 percent have access to tap water.

Moreover, most of India’s working poor toil as farmers or in small-scale urban manufactur­ing; for them, escaping the heat means forgoing a paycheck. But this is an impossible choice; while the science of heat-related health damage is in its infancy, studies have linked exposure to extreme temperatur­es with kidney disease, micronutri­ent deficienci­es, and even cognitive damage

Still, there are things that Indian authoritie­s can do to protect the poor during heat waves.

For example, community showering centers have been proposed as a way to lower heatrelate­d deaths. While this option would be difficult to implement in areas with chronic water shortages, government-led distributi­on programs have worked elsewhere.

The most consequent­ial change would be to give India’s poorest a greater voice

Technologi­cal solutions are also worth exploring. For example, medical researcher­s in Bangalore have created a battery-operated cooling jacket designed to protect people who must work in the heat. Of course, with a $27 price tag, the device is beyond the means of most of India’s poor. But other solutions – including installati­on of solar panels to power cooling systems, and wider use of “green” roofs to help deflect heat – would be easier to scale up.

But the most consequent­ial change would be to give India’s poorest a greater voice.

Too often, people working to end poverty are unfamiliar with the conditions in which the poor live. For climate-resiliency programs to be effective, the target audience must become part of the solution.

Despite years of dire forecasts, the internatio­nal community has been unable to halt the steady climb in global temperatur­es, and it is the world’s poorest who are paying the heaviest toll. As heat-related risks intensify, those living on the margins – in India and elsewhere – will need more than pity to cope effectivel­y.

Gulrez Shah Azhar is an assistant policy researcher at the RAND Corporatio­n and a doctoral candidate at the Pardee RAND Graduate School. THE DAILY STAR publishes this commentary in collaborat­ion with Project Syndicate © (

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