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Heat Action Plans in urban cities risks excluding the most vulnerable

Houses in a city in India. Photo: Unsplash
Researchers and/or local government can use the knowledge gaps identified in the study to develop data collection protocols that can help better monitor and assess the HAP impacts and improve them, says Maryam Nastar. Photo: Unsplash.

In a new study, LUCSUS researcher Maryam Nastar, identifies key knowledge gaps in the evaluation of Ahmedabad’s Heat Action Plan (HAP), and highlights the need to look at the distribution of policy impacts in cities in more detail - to find out who has benefited or been excluded from the outcomes, and what barriers need to be tackled for more inclusive and effective results.

Climate change is expected to increase the frequency, intensity and duration of heatwaves in many urban cities around the world, causing increased health risks for billions of people, especially for vulnerable groups living in the slums. This has caused a growing number of urban heat-related policies to address the unequal impact of heatwaves, such as Ahmedabad’s Heat Action Plan (HAP) in India. 

– Rectifying knowledge gaps in the evaluation of the heat action plan is especially important since many cities in India and South Asia aspire to develop similar policy responses. Therefore it is key to find out who has benefited or been excluded from the outcomes, and what barriers need to be tackled for inclusive and effective results. Otherwise, we will see more ineffective policy responses in cities that are in sore need of inclusive action on heatwaves, says Maryam Nastar, a researcher at LUCSUS.

What are the most interesting findings in your study? 

– My research maps out knowledge gaps in the evaluation of  HAP in Ahmedabad, and highlight challenges for similar policy responses in many cities in the Global South, making them less effective than they could be.

First, there is great uncertainty concerning the number of people living in poor housing conditions in Ahmedabad which can lead to their exclusion from the benefits of HAP, since they are not even recognized in the official statistics. My research also shows that the outreach strategies of HAP, heavily relying on early warning systems through mobile applications, risk missing the most vulnerable groups due to low literacy rate and lack of access to information through internet, phone, television, radio, etc. 

Moreover, many of the targets in HAP, such as access to water and green spaces, to help vulnerable groups in dealing with heatwave impacts, have not been fulfilled. My findings reveal for example, that despite the HAP recommendations, the local government’s endeavors to set up water facilities have not effectively improved access to water in times of heatwaves. Field observations of more than 50 locations in 2019, revealed that many citizens could not obtain drinking water for free or at an affordable cost. As for the enhancement of the city’s green cover, studies have shown that this initiative has had little, if any, impact on city development plans. On contrary, the number of trees planted in the city has declined by 40%, and the number of trees that have been cut has increased in order to widen roads, expand metro systems, and develop residential or commercial sites. 

What can we learn from this study? 

– We need to look at the distribution of policy impacts in cities in more detail and make sure they have actually reached the target groups. To do that, we cannot only rely on (arbitrary) data and statistics regarding disadvantaged and vulnerable groups and their access to information, water, and green spaces during the heatwave periods. We need to collect and analyze more qualitative data through fields and enhance communication channels with slum dwellers to better evaluate the impacts and address hindering factors preventing progressive initiatives such as HAP reach to their full potentials. Looking at the number of deaths or cases admitted to the hospital during heatwaves does not relieve the details essential to assess the impacts of HAP concerning disadvantaged social groups. 

How can this research benefit society?

– Researchers and/or local government can use the knowledge gaps identified in this research to develop data collection protocols that can help better monitor and assess the HAP impacts and improve it.

In my research, I have also discussed the institutional factors and structural elements leading to disparity in urban policy impacts in cities. In addressing these elements, I have argued there is a need for radical reforms at the organizational level and at the broader political and economic levels, at which national urban renewal missions and plans are drafted. Here, active social groups can play a significant role in coordinating collective claims in decision-making processes concerning, for example, municipal budget allocation and monitoring.

This, in turn, requires that these groups, e.g., environmental justice movements, go beyond coordinating efforts that are often too focused on recognition strategies and to adjust their mobilization strategies towards enhancing collective control over city governance practices. Building ties with social movements fighting against market forces and neoliberal urban policies at the national and international levels could be one way, among others, to accomplish this. Only then, in light of uniting urban struggles towards equal cities, we could expect more people to benefit from the integrative climate responses of cities, such as HAP, in the long run.

Read the study: Message Sent, Now What? A Critical Analysis of the Heat Action Plan in Ahmedabad, India, published in Urban Science

 

Heatwaves in cities

Climate change is expected to increase the frequency, intensity and duration of heatwaves. While the most severe effects are projected for cities, due to the urban heat island effect and a series of vulnerabilities in urban contexts, they are not evenly distributed. For example, in Indian cities, which are faced with rising inequality and warmer summers (35 °C on average), the health risks are higher for more than one hundred million people living in the slums, as compared to the middle- and upper-class urban dwellers. This issue is acknowledged by city authorities around the world, and as a result, there has been a growing number of urban heat-related policies to address the unequal impact of heatwaves to protect public health, particularly vulnerable groups.

Ahmedabad’s Heat Action Plan (HAP) is an acclaimed and successful policy response in India and beyond. The pilot evaluation of the initiative, conducted by a group of researchers who also contributed to its development together with the local government, suggests that almost a thousand deaths were avoided annually after its implementation. 

Maryam Nastar

Maryam Nastar

Maryam Nastar is a researcher at Lund University Centre for Sustainability Studies. Her research interests are in development and application of analytical frameworks and tools to explore sustainability challenges, social and political aspects of sustainability transitions, causal linkages between (in)equality and (un)sustainability and resource mobilization, practices of citizenship and social movements

Read more about Maryam Nastar