As the world heats up with climate change, urban areas with their dense habitations, traffic congestions, higher pollution levels and excessive cement and concrete invariably heat up more than rural areas. What is less realized is that within a single city certain areas can heat up much more than others, and the difference can be as high as 10 degrees Celsius, or even more. As several recent research studies have shown, these hot spots are invariably the more crowded, less green areas inhabited by the poorer sections.
A study by the University of California—San Diego, which covered 1056 counties in the USA revealed that low income neighborhoods and communities with higher black, Hispanic and Asian populations experienced more heat than wealthier and predominantly white neighborhoods in a vast majority of USA counties. ( Science News, July 13 2021).
This is confirmed closer to home in a study of three cities Delhi, Dacca and Faisalabad titled ‘Patterns of outdoor exposure to heat in three South Asian cities ( published in Science of the Total Environment, 15 July 2019). The authors of this study (Cor. Jacobs, Tanya Jacob and others) have concluded on the basis of data for April –September 2016 that not only are daytime heat levels consistently in the category of dangerous to very dangerous, in addition “people living in informal neighborhoods are consistently more exposed to heat than people living in more prosperous neighborhoods.”
This has been confirmed in several studies in various parts of the world including Latin America and the Middle East, while some other researchers like Vivek Shandas, Professor of climate adaptation studies at the Portland State University, USA, have also stated that those who have been victims of discrimination, including the immigrants and the poor are often found in larger numbers in these urban hot spots. ( Urban heat is a huge challenge—Vivek Shandas, The Times of India, March 2022).
This it is not by accident or coincidence but rather due to policies of injustice and discrimination that the poorer sections of urban populations tend to be frequently more concentrated in the hottest parts of many cities. Hence policies of justice and equality in urban areas have a very important role in bringing relief to the people worst affected by increasing heat in these times of climate change.
As the study quoted above on three South Asian cities emphasized, the heat stress for poorer neighborhoods can be reduced by enhancing greenery and by protecting ( or creating) water-bodies)—increasing green and blue areas. Unfortunately the budgets for parks, lakes and afforestation in most cities are often biased in favor of the more prosperous areas which are already greener. Keeping in view the global warming trends, there is a strong case for giving much more attention ad allocating much more funds for afforestation and water conservation work in slum areas and poorer neighborhoods.
In addition there is greater need for improving health conditions in poorer neighborhoods and for placing health and ambulance services here on high alert in times of increasing heat, particularly heat waves. As the research of Jeremy Hoffman, Chief Scientist at the Science Museum, Virginia, USA, has confirmed, most calls for heat emergencies and emergencies are received from poorer neighborhoods. ( Summer in the city is hot, but some neighborhoods suffer more, The New York Times, August 9, 2019).
According to Benjamin Zaitchik of John Hopkins University, heat tends to harm more those who suffer from respiratory and cardiovascular conditions, and exacerbates asthma in children, affecting their ability to develop in a healthy way. ( The world is seeing unprecedented heat conditions—The Times of India, March 27, 2022). Clearly there is greater need for care for these more vulnerable sections in conditions of increasing heat.
There will be greater need in slums for community halls where some cool place is assured at all times, with electricity back up, so that vulnerable people who do not require hospitalization can be shifted here when need arises. These community places can also have a big, cool and quiet reading room to help students and others.
The homeless people including street children are even more vulnerable than slum dwellers to conditions of increasing heat. Clearly they deserve much more attention in times of weather extremes including intense heating of roads and footpaths. The main intervention to help them has been in the form of construction of night shelters which have been planned and designed mainly to protect from cold weather. In fact several of these shelters operate only during winter months. However in times of climate change there is going to be equal, or perhaps even greater, need for providing shelter during intensely hot afternoons. Hence the program of night shelters should be considerably stepped up and suitably modified to meet the changing requirements. Special care should be given to meet the requirements of homeless women and children. Apart from proper shelters, there should be several points of shade where clean and cool drinking water is available free of charge all the time.
One reason why homeless people have increased in some cities is that several slums have been demolished without thinking much about rehabilitation. It is really sad that even during pandemic times large scale demolitions and evictions have been reported from several cities ( including Faridabad and Gurugram ) while more are planned elsewhere ( for example Chandigarh and Ambala). While several studies have repeatedly shown that on-site development of slums is almost always the better option, this policy option gets further support from the fast increasing heat conditions in times of climate change when throwing people out of the only place they have to live can lead to the loss of life of several vulnerable people including the elderly, ill and small children.
Hence clearly the increasing heat of our cities should be seen also and in fact more emphatically in terms of the need to shift to policies of more justice and concern for the weakest sections, as well as more ecologically protective policies with focus on increasing green cover and water conservation.
Bharat Dogra is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include Protecting Earth for Children and Man over Machine.