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Vol. XXXI No. 24, April 1-15, 2022

Rising heat, climate change forecasts call for comprehensive heat action plan for the city

by A Special Correspondent

On March 22, Chennai experienced one of the hottest days in the year so far. The temperature reportedly soared past 38 degree celsius in many parts of the city, with weather stations at Nungambakkam and Meenambakkam recording a maximum temperature of 37.6 degree Celsius and 38 degree Celsius respectively – a level which is reportedly four degree Celsius above average for the day. Last year, the maximum temperature had touched 38.3 degree Celsius in the city on March 31.

It was just at the beginning of the month that an IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) study reportedly concluded that Chennai faces the risk of breaching the critical threshold of wet bulb temperatures. Wet bulb temperature is a measure that combines heat and humidity. It is the lowest temperature to which air can be cooled by the evaporation of water. Experts say that a wet bulb temperature of 31 degree Celsius poses extreme danger to humans while that of 35 degree Celsius cannot be survived for more than six hours, even by healthy adults resting in the shade. According to the IPCC report, Chennai risks reaching wet bulb temperatures of 32-34 degree Celsius if greenhouse gas emissions remain unchanged.

The State government has taken note of the IPCC report and claims to be working on a plan to mitigate the prognosis. Additional Chief Secretary of Chennai, Supriya Sahu, pointed out that not only are micro forests in the pipeline under the Tamil Nadu Green Mission, but the TN State Action Plan on Climate Change 2.0 has also reportedly been finalised as well. It is expected to be put forth before the State committee soon.

It cannot be denied that the State has taken the first steps toward countering the city’s problem of rising heat. The authorities have reiterated their commitment to a number of green projects, such as improving the city’s green cover, encouraging electric vehicles and renewable energy and the creation of a carbon credit framework. But the question remains of how far the city has progressed with these fledgling projects. As matters stand, the city’s heat crisis necessitates a comprehensive plan to combat its effect on citizens, both in the short-term as well as the long-term.

For one, the city needs a heatwave action plan to tide through the scorching summer months. Such a 2019 State document does exist, however, there is no report – media or official – about the execution of the plan or the results. Chennai can perhaps take a leaf out of Ahmedabad’s book in this regard. Ahmedabad reportedly implemented its Heat Action Plan following a particularly hot season in 2010. The plan prioritized four tasks – public education and community outreach, an early warning system and inter-agency coordination, capacity-building among healthcare professionals and adaptive efforts to reduce urban heat. A key initiative from the 2010 plan was the Cool Roof Programme, which recommends a white lime wash on the roofs of buildings to provide a simple and cost-effective solution to extreme heat. Creditably, Ahmedabad has taken the effort to release revised heatwave plans year after year, keeping with changing urban and environmental conditions. Its Heat Action Plan reportedly saves an estimated 1,100 lives each year.

If Ahmedabad can, Chennai surely can, too. The popularity of weather bloggers shows that citizens are aware of the impact of changing weather on their lives and wish to be informed. It will, therefore, not be an uphill battle to raise public awareness about the crisis. Some cities set up temporary cooling centers for their citizens in public spaces such as libraries, museums and parks, a move which can help provide greater support to the city’s vulnerable populations at the height of summer. As for long-term plans, they will deliver results only if implemented at the earliest. Such plans also need to expand in scope to include citizen responsibility alongside strategies such as afforestation and carbon credits. For instance, the mandate of cooling roofs sounds promising based on Ahmedabad’s success, but will deliver little benefit if implementation goes the way of the mandate on rain water harvesting provisions in buildings (media reports say that not only is the mandate neglected by some, but that existing provisions are not maintained well).

As the city waits for summer to hit, we hope that the authorities move quickly to execute plans on paper.

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