Heat Waves are a Double Jeopardy For Urban Poor Settlements

Rajesh Tandon

Last week, I called the repairman of my home AC as the cooling in my bedroom the night before did not seem comfortable. After finishing his job, I offered him a glass of water and a piece of cake. As he wiped his sweat, sipping water slowly, I enquired about his home. Living in a single room rented tenement of 150 sq. ft. in Sangam Vihar colony with his wife and two young kids, he barely smiled.

Last week’s heat wave with daily temperatures reaching 43C must have caused great discomfort and misery to him and his family. He was happy to be out of his home, servicing ACs in other people’s homes for nearly 12 hours a day; he thus managed to escape the ‘heat trap’ of his home everyday. How do his wife and kids manage?

Heat Waves as a result of Climate Change

The climate changes in countries like India are already causing more frequent heat waves with temperatures rising 4-5C higher than normal during long summer months. Unseasonal weather changes caused February in Delhi this year to be one of the hottest in history.

While most of the focus on mitigating strategies for climate change remains on reducing carbon emissions (important as that is), hardly any attention is being paid to ‘heat stress’ in urban areas, especially densely populated informal settlements.

Many informal workers in urban areas get far more exposure to heat due to open, unshaded working spaces. Their jobs keep them exposed to heat several hours a day. Open spaces and tree shades are more readily available to their counter-parts in rural areas. Their working hours are mostly during day time, not early morning or late evening. And, ‘work-from-home’ is not an option (like the AC repairman, loader, rickshaw-puller, gardner, cleaner, etc.).

Poor urban neighbourhoods in metropolitan regions like Delhi have increased lately; due to restrictive policies and periodic evictions (now in the name of G20), most new migrants to Delhi are staying in peri-urban and informal settlements.

Densely populated, small homes trap heat inside and cause serious health hazards to young and old alike. There are hardly any shades or tree covers in such neighbourhoods to come out of homes to rest and cool down. The earlier practice of earthen pots kept in public spaces as ‘pyau’ (free drinking water supply to thirsty) has largely disappeared.

Just yesterday, while on evening walk in my tree-covered colony, I heard some residents shouting at two Zomato delivery boys. On enquiry, I learnt that these two delivery boys had stopped their motorcycles near the park, and sat down with water to cool themselves. My fellow residents did not like this at all since the park in ‘their’ colony was being “occupied” by non-residents. Without understanding how driving motorcycle throughout the day in summer heat causes tiredness and dehydration to these young man (who are delivering goods our families want in front of our door steps), my fellow residents demonstrated their insensitivity to other less-privileged citizens.

Systematic studies on impacts of heat on urban informal settlements are few. The focus on housing design and materials is even rare. While density is an important variable, lack of air circulation in the small dwellings results in ‘heat traps’. This further increases as cooking is also done in the same closed small space. That is why, in evenings, many women are seen to be cooking on the pavements, outside their homes.

Some independent efforts are being made to review the impacts of building materials during summer. Most such settlements have asbestos or cement roofing. The former can cause ‘asbestosis’ after continuous use  over long term. The cement roofing is ‘perfect’ heat trapping material. With meagre resources, limited physical space and lack of technical advice, very little seems to have been changing for the urban poor homes.

Curbing Heat Waves

However, the policy focus on climate impacts in urban poor settlements can be more rigorously applied by state governments and municipalities. As new housing schemes are being approved, and as PM Awas Yojana is providing subsidy for housing of the urban poor, such considerations of heat impacts on the health and well-being of families can be brought into the architectural design of internal and external spaces, as well as choice of building materials that do not add to heating.

More importantly, awareness programmes for urban poor settlements about impacts of heat waves on their health and that of their families need to be conducted. Availability and storage of potable drinking water during summer months needs to be monitored in such settlements, where individual taps in their small homes are still not a reality. Unlike Covid virus, heat stress on human body takes its toll slowly, but surely.

Indian Meteorological Department is predicting heat wave conditions over next days.

The article was first published in The Times of India as Heat Waves on May 20, 2023.

Read more by the author: The Hardships of Delivery.

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Dr. Rajesh Tandon is the Founder and President of PRIA, New Delhi