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How heatwaves and climate change impact children

In recent years, the intensity of the heat waves has increased


As heatwaves continue to scorch us this summer, I am reminded of a kindergarten Hindi poem about a young bird sharing the experience to her mother of flying around the world, which ended with these lines – “Mata ko yeh vachan sunaye, Dekh liya humne jag saara, Apna ghar hai sabse pyara”. (Telling you O Mother we give you our word, we have seen the whole world, yet our home is the most blessed place). Isn’t this true for most of us? We love our homes irrespective of their size or the facilities therein. The possessiveness, which we have for our homes, is somehow missing when it comes to our Earth – our collective and only home.

India, the world's second populous nation is one of the most vulnerable countries to be adversely impacted by climate change. According to the Global Climate Risk Index, it was the tenth most climate-affected country in the world in 2022. India is presently in the middle of a heat wave, with record temperatures in parts of northern, western and central India. On May 16, Delhi recorded a maximum temperature of 49 degrees Celsius. In other parts of the country, the temperatures varied from 44-47 degrees Celsius. A recent study carried out in Maharashtra and Bihar states by Sphere India, a National Coalition of Humanitarian Agencies in India including World Vision India found that a third of the respondents said these heatwaves risk plunging them into poverty as their livestock has died and crops have failed - the two main sources of their livelihood. Heatwaves have already killed 24,380 people from 1991-to 2018, according to the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA). 

We did have heat waves in the past. However, in recent years, the intensity of the heat waves has increased. According to an ongoing study by the Meteorological Department, the number of heatwave days in India has increased in the last 10 years. According to Dr. Pai from the Kottayam based Institute for Climate Change studies, “The inland regions studies have shown more than eight heatwave days, on average, in the months from April to June and the affected areas have increased from 1991 and 2020, in comparison to the previous three decades starting from 1961. 

We know that these heat waves are caused by the phenomenon of high-pressure areas formed in the upper atmosphere, which traps the air and pushes it downward, rather than allowing it to move upwards to cooler zones. Global warming and climate change have been a triggering factors and play a primary role in the increase of the frequency of these atmospheric events as mentioned earlier-- also endorsed by Dr Pai and  Mahesh Palawat (Vice President of Skymet Weather Services). As the air gets trapped in these high-pressure areas, the higher concentrations of greenhouse gases further add to the heat in the air mass, thereby raising the temperatures in simple terms.

Climate and environmental hazards are already having devastating impacts on the well-being of children. According to a study conducted by Columbia University and published in ‘PLoS One Medicine’ in 2018, infants and children are particularly vulnerable to dehydration and heat stress in a heatwave context. Children are more likely to be affected by respiratory diseases, kidney diseases, electrolyte imbalance and fever, during heat waves. Due to heatwaves, a large section of people’s lives and livelihoods get impacted. As a result, the climate crisis is creating a child rights crisis and threatening their very survival. It is creating a water crisis, a health crisis, an education crisis, a protection crisis and a participation crisis. 

Unfortunately, this is only the beginning. The present situation is similar to that of one’s house is on fire, and there is a need for urgent action to douse the fire. While there have been efforts from the Government, National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) and other stakeholders towards addressing these issues, there still seem to be a lack of collective action involving everyone coming together for a movement to save and protect our only home, the Earth. Not only do climate and environmental hazards negatively affect children’s access to key essential services. Children’s lack of access to key essential services also reduces their resiliency and adaptive capacity, further increasing their vulnerability to climate and environmental hazards. Thus, a vicious cycle is created, pushing the most vulnerable children deeper into poverty while at the same time increasing their risk of experiencing the worst and most life-threatening effects of climate change. 

Heat waves and extreme weather conditions are often associated with issues of water scarcity. More and more water is drawn out of the ground to meet various needs arising out of the heat wave conditions, with very less recharging of the groundwater systems. It is, therefore, important to take up the practice of rainwater harvesting both in rural and urban areas. The regeneration of degraded lands with green spaces needs to take the form of a movement through appropriate regeneration methods like reforestation, afforestation, assisted natural regeneration, Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration (FMNR) etc. Appreciate the Government of India’s commitment to restore 26 million hectares of degraded land by 2030. 

 It is important to also focus on developing carbon sinks in urban towns and cities in the form of urban forests through the active participation of the local communities and other stakeholders. These could be opportunities to replicate models like Miyawaki, which has been successful in different parts of the world-- developing common lands into green spaces with trees, etc. Government can come up with schemes to motivate the urban dwellers to come out, plant trees, and nurture them. We need to take conscious steps in moving towards ‘Green Infrastructures’, which will use locally available resources to naturally regulate the indoor room temperature, harvest rainwater for usage and rely on natural light to reduce carbon footprint.

Preparedness and early warning systems are part and parcel of a larger necessary agenda for climate risk management and must be paired with efforts and investments in risk prevention. Mainstreaming environmental education into the school curriculum is essential to ensure children make informed choices about climate action and sustainability. Skill-based learning is also essential to empower children, adolescents and teachers to participate in climate mitigation, adaptation and climate-resilience activities in schools, to encourage children to become part of the solution to climate change. Investing in sustainability education has a tremendous multiplier effect. For example, investing in school infrastructures to create disaster-resilient classrooms will help reduce long-term disruption to children’s learning process during any climate-induced crisis such as heat waves or floods. 

The challenge ahead is daunting, however, the Covid lockdowns have shown that nature is resilient and has the power to bounce back quickly if given the support it needs. The only long-term solution to climate change is reducing greenhouse gas emissions. There are many other promising solutions to draw from – including nature-based solutions. One of the most sustainable solutions is the transition towards an economic model, which decouples economic growth from fossil fuel consumption and thus reduces emissions to safe levels. Another is consulting directly with children themselves – children have important ideas about the world they want and need to thrive. Only with such truly transformative action will we bequeath children a liveable planet.

Dr Salmon Jacob is Head of Climate Change & Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR), World Vision India

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not purport to reflect those of The WEEK