To the relief of parents and children, schools have reopened, and children are back to their normal lives of attending in-person classes and playing with schoolmates. The spike in Covid cases, so far, hasn’t derailed this. But there is another concern affecting children and parents in several parts of the country: Extreme heat.
The other day, I saw children packed to capacity in school vans on their way back home around 2 pm. Some children had their faces pasted to the windows as others stuffed in seemed to gasp for some air and cool. It’s a routine sight in Delhi.
But it’s also very likely that many children are physically and psychologically impacted by extreme heat during their difficult commute. It’s impossible to air-condition all schools in heatwave-prone regions. But, at the very least, schools can be built or retrofitted to keep the thermal comfort of children in mind and make their commute easier. Summer vacations will have to be also carefully planned, responding effectively to ongoing weather conditions.
Perhaps one of the effective ways to beat the heat at school would be to have adequate foliage, with native trees on the campus and well-ventilated structures to keep school hours bearable for children of all age groups. These interventions could address the psychological stress of attending school during high temperatures. For many children living in unauthorised colonies and shanties, the school is the only escape from heat stress. This is what school authorities must address.
The India Meteorological Department (IMD) has issued an extended-range forecast for the two weeks from April 22 to April 28 and April 29 to May 5. The forecast shows above-normal temperatures during both the weeks, particularly between April 29 and May 5 over the entire country except parts of peninsular India.
On Thursday, M Rajeevan, former secretary, ministry of earth sciences (MoES), tweeted out a warning:
Are governments in heat affected regions considering an early summer vacation schedule factoring in the spike in maximum temperatures next week? More importantly, are schools considering the impact of climate crisis on children and how schools can help manage them? IMD experts have warned that parts of east India, including Odisha, Jharkhand, and Bihar, are likely to be significantly impacted by heat stress over the next two weeks. These are also regions with high humidity levels that can make even a minor increase in temperature difficult to handle.
The time has come to consider these impacts because they are already pronounced now. We cannot underestimate the morbidity and mortality burden of heatwaves any more. According to ministry of earth sciences’ response in the Rajya Sabha to a question on the number of casualties due to extreme weather events in India, there were 505 deaths in 2019 due to heatwaves out of 3,017 extreme weather casualties that year.
In 2016, there were 501 heatwave deaths, 2,081 in 2015, and 1,433 in 2013. According to experts, these numbers are still a gross underestimation of heatwave mortality. In most states, all cause mortality (death from any cause) is not declared by districts, so its difficult to track the spike in deaths during heat extremes. The climate crisis is already increasing vector-borne and water-borne diseases, undernutrition, mental disorders and allergic diseases in Asia by increasing the hazards such as heatwaves, flooding and drought, and air pollution, in combination with higher exposure and vulnerability, according to the IPCC’s report titled Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability released in March.
In addition to all-cause mortality, deaths related to circulatory, respiratory, diabetic and infectious disease, as well as infant mortality are on the rise in Asia with high temperatures, the report said.
Dilip Malvankar, director, Indian Institute of Public Health, Gujarat explained to me during my reportage that extreme heat puts an increased load on the circulatory system, which has to do additional work to cool the body by sweating. This can lead to dehydration and increased metabolism. Excess heat can also be linked to an increase in, or exacerbation of, complications of diabetes due to dehydration and increased metabolism. Infant mortality will, therefore, rise because children are not able to control their body temperature well. Their bodies can get overheated during heat waves.
While planning for the extreme heat season, governments need to keep another issue in sight, that 1.5 degrees Celsius breach in global warming is now imminent. While the breach of this milestone in itself may not suddenly change our experience of extreme weather events, it does tell us that we need to adapt to the severe impacts of the climate crisis now.
The amount of greenhouse gases like CO2 emitted by the world needs to peak by 2025 followed by a 43% reduction over the next 10 years in order to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, the IPCC said in its mitigation report released earlier this month. It warned that policies implemented till the end of 2020 will add more emissions and lead to a rise of 3.2 degrees Celsius by the end of the century. Instead of reducing, emissions between 2010-19 were around 12% and 54% higher than in 2010 and 1990. These findings show the breach in 1.5 degrees Celsius of global warming compared to pre-industrial levels is certain.
From the climate crisis to air pollution, from questions of the development-environment tradeoffs to India’s voice in international negotiations on the environment, HT’s Jayashree Nandi brings her deep domain knowledge in a weekly column
The views expressed are personal
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