The heightened vulnerability of the South Asian subcontinent to heatwaves can be ascribed to several interacting characteristics — but these have not been adequately examined and discussed. The Humanitarian Observatory Initiative in South Asia (HOISA) was launched earlier this year in an attempt to bridge this gap by charting the particular risks and vulnerabilities of the region, observing the state of current humanitarian governance processes, and based on ongoing discussions providing recommendations for more effective responses to heatwaves. This article details some of the main dynamics of heatwaves in South Asia considered during HOISA’s first panel discussion, including specific governance challenges that the observatory will focus on.
A heatwave is a climatic process and a period of abnormally high temperatures — higher than the normal maximum temperature that occurs during a particular season. While they have always occurred, their frequency and severity have rapidly increased due to climate change caused by the industrialisation of modern economies and increased carbon emissions. The WHO considers heatwaves to be one of the most dangerous natural hazards because of their destructive effects, which are severe: from 1998 to 2017 alone, more than 166,000 people have died globally due to heatwaves, and the impact on livelihoods has been just as immense. Yet, heatwaves rarely receive adequate attention because of their delayed effects that moreover are not always easily to pinpoint.
South Asia is particularly vulnerable to heatwaves
While heatwaves are global phenomena that know no national boundaries, their manifestations and impact vary from region to region, depending on various characteristics such as demographics and geography. From this viewpoint, South Asia is known to be one of the most vulnerable regions in the world. First, it has a high-density population numbering close to two billion people. Second, the region has immense variations in its geographical features, social structures, built environments, socio-economic means, and much more. The interaction of these characteristics makes it particularly complex to govern — and the complexity increases even more when heatwaves occur.
And the subcontinent is set to face even more heatwaves
Moreover, a recent report of the WMO claims that heatwaves are 30 times more likely to take place on the subcontinent than before, with massive damage to livelihoods and wellbeing, ecosystems, economies, and infrastructure expected to occur in the coming decades. In one of the latest examples, February this year was observed as the warmest month since 1901. Thus, not only are heatwaves already affecting South Asia badly — it’s going to get much worse.
A humanitarian observatory to better understand heatwaves in South Asia
It is in light of this that the HOISA, the Humanitarian Observatory Initiative of South Asia, was launched in April this year. Its objective is to monitor humanitarian governance processes, with a focus on responses to heatwaves. Considering the urgency of the matter, HOISA organized a first panel discussion on April 7th, which brought together about 30 actors working on heatwaves. Panel discussants included Dorothea Hilhorst (International Institute of Social Studies — ISS), Prabodh Chakrabarti (Swami Vivekananda Chair and Professor of Environment and Disaster Management, RKMVERI, Kolkata), Keya Saha Chaudhary (International Council of Voluntary Agencies — ICVA), Nimesh Dhungana (Humanitarian and Conflict Response Institute of the University of Manchester — HCRI), Delu Lusambya (PhD researcher at the ISS) Mihir Bhatt (All India Disaster Mitigation Institute — AIDMI), and Khayal Trivedi (HOISA Project Lead).
The panel focused on the increasing risk of heatwaves, the uniqueness of this occurrence in the region, existing humanitarian systems, and the first steps towards measuring and planning for the effects of heatwaves. This is because although South Asia has suffered the most due to heatwaves and also has found many ways to adapt to it, relatively limited humanitarian and governmental action has been observed and recorded. Some of the main observations made by participants and action points are discussed below.
South Asia’s characteristics make heatwaves more intense and dangerous
At the launch, we discussed how the abovementioned characteristics such as population density, infrastructure, and geographical features such as altitudes affect and sometimes aggravate the effects of a heatwave. For example, recent research on ‘wet-bulb temperatures’ in South Asia reports that parts of the region on the subcontinent are much closer to the threshold limits of human survivability than the African and Gulf regions. The depth and range of vulnerability and exposure of the population and economy of the region to heatwaves are also much more intense and complex here. In light of these and other observations, we argue that the current humanitarian approach to heatwaves in South Asia needs to be revisited.
In such a context, we must accelerate the implementation of heatwave action plans at all levels and in key sectors driving development, starting with employment, health, education, and so on. The built environment and supporting infrastructure in their current form, for example, are simply not capable of withstanding severe temperature shifts and is making it harder to adapt, Nimesh Dhungana, one of the key panel members from Nepal, stated at the discussion. A comprehensive study is required to ensure that these are adapted sufficiently and rapidly.
Mobilizing funding for adaptive measures is a key priority
Another important parameter in planning for and mitigating this natural hazard is the mobilization of funding. Across the humanitarian sector, current funding is simply not sufficient to meet the growing needs, particularly when it comes to taking adaptive measures. At the panel discussion, we agreed that more holistic and less siloed approaches to securing funding are needed to address the impacts of climate change. In the case of heatwaves, this means funding modalities that consider both the immediate and long-term consequences of heatwaves to ensure not only immediate responses but also the improved resilience of communities to heatwaves over time. Therefore, increased investments and integrated funding should form part of heatwave management strategies and plans in South Asia.
As part of this, attention should be paid to the meaningful locally led involvement of communities and local and indigenous solutions to addressing heatwaves. What makes this challenging and even more urgent is that the heatwave-affected population in South Asia is hardly protected by a social safety net, leading to massive losses and damage. Resolving or forming sustainable practices that ensure uniform funding will protect these populations therefore becomes critical. Furthermore, the coming together of researchers and operational experts to study and pilot heatwave safety nets, both formal and informal, is overdue in South Asia.
Heatwaves must be placed on the global political agenda
In the wake of increased risks associated with heatwaves and the distinct ways in which it affects the region and its people, this phenomenon must be placed on the global political agenda. Governments, the United Nations, academics, and activists together must aim to draw a global heatwave compact signed by all stakeholders — including those affected — that stretch beyond the current climate policy community.
A joint plan of action for South Asian countries should be formalized
Moreover, as a phenomenon that exceeds borders to affect an entire region, a joint plan of action between countries in South Asia must be formalized. And humanitarian actions must take place simultaneously in a cohesive manner for a positive impact, which is in fact the agenda of the several humanitarian observatories forming across the globe. The formation of a global movement to address the effects of heatwaves worldwide is therefore vital.
Increased trust in science is a key pillar for effective interventions
But such a joint effort and action across South Asia requires a grasp of the state of South Asia’s heatwaves. Unfortunately, the increasing distance between science and society, between evidence and knowledge, and the fragmented use of data and tools for adapting to heatwaves have also been observed lately in the region. More research, knowledge, and evidence is needed, as well as interdisciplinary knowledge exchanges and the transfer of technology, tools, data, and key concepts. Unlocking private and public data on heatwaves and related phenomena that are currently difficult to access is an important first step.
Interdisciplinary heatwave workforces needed
Moreover, we need a locally led comprehensive, multi-level, and multi-directional approach with multiple stakeholders to plan and mitigate the dire effects of heatwaves in the region. Building interdisciplinary heatwave workforces with the knowledge, skills, and capacities to prevent, manage and reduce losses, and to evaluate how to improve things, can help strengthen existing humanitarian systems.
To summarize, South Asia is undoubtedly one of the most complex of the heatwave-affected regions and requires the urgent attention of researchers, policy makers, humanitarian leaders, and other stakeholders to chart local actions and observations and make changes to these to ensure that effective interventions will make a direct impact. Partners of HOISA must and will continue observing, reflecting on, discussing, and recommending actions humanitarian actors and other stakeholders should take.
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About the authors:
Khayal Trivedi is the Project Lead, Humanitarian Observatory Initiative of South Asia.
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