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Vol. XXXIII No. 5, June 16-30, 2023

Chennai scorches as wet bulb temperatures breach safe thresholds

-- by A Special Correspondent

Balu has not slept for days. “The house feels like a furnace even at night,” he says, eyes ringed by dark circles and lips cracking dry. His job requires him to work outdoors, beneath an increasingly cruel sun. The workplace provides him with as much water as he wants, but he says that the limits of his endurance have been tested this summer.

In June, city environmental organisation Poovulagin Nanbargal reported that their office recorded a wet bulb temperature of 31.3 deg C while Kodambakkam registered 32.8 deg C. These numbers are higher than the safe threshold of 30 deg C, marking the first time that Chennai’s temperature levels have breached the boundary. Wet bulb temperatures are the coolest our bodies can hope to get through sweating. As perspiration evaporates from the skin, it cools down the body; but in conditions such as the wet bulb temperatures recorded above, where heat and humidity are both high, our natural cooling mechanism is rendered ineffective as less sweat evaporates from the body. Healthy adults can survive for not more than six hours at wet bulb temperatures greater than 35 deg C, while the vulnerable face a much lower threshold at 30 deg C. Experts feel that climate change will make such events more common in the coming years.

The State Government ­issued public advisories in response to a heat stress warning from the Regional Meteorological Centre this summer. Civic authorities were instructed to make sure that government hospitals were well-equipped to provide medical treatment to those affected by heat waves; mandates were issued to ensure that exposed workers such as those in MGNREGS, agriculture, construction and laying of roads were provided with drinking water, oral rehydration solutions and first aid kits; and local bodies were asked to monitor the supply of drinking water, first aid kits and rest spots in public places such as bus terminuses and markets. However, given the severity of the problem at hand – one that is only poised to get worse in coming years – the measures taken fall disappointingly short of delivering any real impact.

Activists had, in fact, raised a call earlier in April, decrying the State Government’s ‘ill-preparedness’ to handle acute heatwaves. Actually, the State authorities formulated a Heat Wave Action Plan in 2019 for precisely such situations, but there is not much information on the implementation of its short, medium and long-term measures, which include awareness creation, rescheduling of working hours, the building of temporary shelters and increasing green cover. A recent article in The New Indian Express says that an official at the Tiruchy branch of the Disaster Management Authority said that no preventive steps were taken at the district levels; it further recorded a statement from Supriya Sahu, the Additional Chief Secretary to the Government, claiming that the increase of green cover was carried out by her department and was reviewed on a monthly basis. As for rescheduling working hours and furnishing essential supplies, there is little insight into the implementation of these mandates.

The Heat Wave Action Plan 2019 seems to focus on an early warning system so that people and communities can be mobilised to tackle oncoming heatwaves. It fails in defining concrete, active measures to prepare the city for rising temperatures. For instance, ground reports suggest that a significant number of workplaces in the city see the government’s heatwave advisories for labour communities as suggestions rather than regulatory mandates, as monitory measures are not in place. Administrative controls such as frequent breaks, greater sharing of work, provision of hydrating supplies and immediate availability of medical help need to be organised into liable corporate responsibility. The State Government must undertake more studies, too, to understand the areas in the city where wet bulb temperatures were breached this season; its medium- and long-term plans such as increasing green cover or promoting the use of cooling roofs in construction will achieve success only by dint of such validated data. There is scope for authorities to conduct research into technological solutions, as well. According to an article in The Wire, academics are already studying how companies can reduce heat exposure for their workers through engineering solutions ranging from architectural and interior design to the use of cooling tools such as heat shields, special uniforms, or vests lined with ice packs.

There is much to be done and little time to do it in. Dealing with large-scale shifts such as climate change requires disciplined, delivery-focused schemes where responsibility is assumed by civic authorities rather than depending solely on community-based solutions. There’s little need to wait for a heat disaster similar to the 2015 Chennai floods in order to begin taking it seriously.

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