In rising heat, the cry of the wilting outdoor worker

Context: The intensity and frequency of heatwaves have soared in South Asia and they are set to worsen in the years ahead. The consequences for health and livelihoods are catastrophic, as a third of South Asia’s population depends on outdoor work.

India must initiate safety nets — a combination of targeted transfers and insurance schemes — to improve the resilience of outdoor workers.

What is the situation wrt extreme heat in India and across the world?

Situation in India

Extreme heat conditions have hit swathes of India, not only in the northern States of Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, and New Delhi, but now increasingly also in the south.

Delhi this month suffered its second warmest April in 72 years, temperatures averaging 40.2°C, and Gurgaon in neighbouring Haryana crossed 45°C for the first time.

Global situation

Over the last 100 years, global temperatures have risen by 1.5°C and, at the current rate, could reach 4°C by 2100.

So far in the year, 2022 has been the fifth-warmest year on record.

What are the reasons behind extreme heat in India?

India’s warming is the result not only of local factors but also global warming.

The culprit in the current plight from intense weather is the anthropogenic GHG emissions.

What are the various impacts of the heatwaves?

Heatwaves are proving to be Europe’s deadliest climate disaster. India faces the largest heat exposure impacts in South Asia.

Loss of life: One study finds that 1,41,308 lives were claimed by acute weather in India during 1971-2019, of which the loss of 17,362 lives (12%) was due to unrelenting heat.

Economic loss: Worldwide economic losses, by one estimate, could reach U.S.$1.6 trillion (₹1.6 lakh crore) annually if global warming exceeds 2°C. India, China, Pakistan, and Indonesia, where large numbers of people work outdoors, are among the most vulnerable.

India’s outdoor workers, reeling under daily temperatures of more than 40°C, are on the frontlines of the climate catastrophe.

What needs to be done?

The optimal approach

Adaptation is essential: Climate mitigation or decarbonization of economies especially of the big emitters, such as the USA, the EU, China, and India remains important. But temperatures are set to rise regardless of mitigation, based on the emission damage already done. That means climate adaptation is as big a priority as mitigation.

– Better environmental care: A crucial aspect of adaptation is better environmental care that can contribute to cooling. For instance: Agriculture, being water-intensive, does not do well in heat wave-prone areas. A solution is to promote better agricultural practices which are not water-intensive and to support afforestation that has a positive effect wrt warming.

Protecting the outdoor workers

Response to the current plight of outdoor workers can be linked to climate adaptation.

Financial transfers can be targeted to help farmers plant trees and buy equipment better suited for the extreme weather. For example, support for drip irrigation can reduce heavy water usage.

Averting slash and burn agriculture and stubble burning is not only key to cutting air pollution but also cooling temperatures.

Urban green such as street trees, urban forests and green roofs can help cool urban areas.

Workers in cities and villages can benefit from early warning systems and better preparedness as well as community outreach programmes during an episode.

Insurance for workers: Insurance against natural hazards is minimal not only in India but also Asia where less than 10% of the losses are typically covered. Government and insurers need to collaborate in providing greater coverage of losses from extreme weather events, including for calamities from brutal heat.

For greater effectiveness, transfers and insurance payments can be tied to investments in resilience made at the local levels, such as restoring the urban environment that has a cooling effect. Delhi’s Aravali Biodiversity Park is a stand-out example that transformed a barren landscape into forest communities protecting greenery and biodiversity.

Transfers could also be linked with mapping of the incidence of heatwaves across locations. The most severely affected areas are also likely to be the most poverty-prone and need stronger insurance packages, including guarantees for crop losses.

Incentive schemes could also be tailored to annual changes in the intensity of the hazard.

The projections of the IMD can guide future scenarios, which the Central government can use to develop subsidies and insurance schemes linked to State and district-level actions for building resilience to climate change

Way forward

Tying cash transfers and insurance schemes to State and local green investments will not only provide some financial cover for outdoor workers but also motivate small-scale investments in much-needed resilience to heatwaves.

Source: This news is based on the article”In rising heat, the cry of the wilting outdoor worker” published in The Hindu on 7th May 22.

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