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Reduced inequality and better social networks crucial to dealing with heatwaves

A collage of a sun and thermometer. A sun in the background and a thermometer.  Photo: iStock.
The biggest problems with cities' heat action plans are that vulnerable groups find it difficult to access support, and that there is not enough budget to implement equal measures says Maryam Nastar. Photo: iStock.

Dealing with heat is about more than implementing technical solutions such as cold rooms, access to water, green areas and communication systems. Equally, if not more, important is to strengthen social networks, reduce income disparities and eliminate social vulnerability. Sustainability researcher Maryam Nastar comments on the heat wave in Canada and North America based on her research on extreme weather.

She works at Lund University Centre for Sustainability Studies, LUCSUS, and has recently analysed the Indian city of Ahmedabad’s heat action pan. Similar action plans exist for cities in Canada and other parts of North America, Asia, Europe and Africa.

Three components are needed to handle heat in cities

Based on her research, Maryam Nastar identifies three crucial components for cities to be able to protect their residents from the effects of extreme heat - whether they are megacities in India and Asia or cities in North America or Europe.

The components include:

  1. Good knowledge and data on who is most vulnerable to extreme heat, which require more extensive qualitative fieldwork than relying on official statistics;
  2. Well-functioning communication systems to be able to warn and inform these groups, not only based on digital platforms but also through local community-based outreach centers; and
  3. Improving the quality of access to services, such as water, electricity, cooling centers, pools, green areas in times of heatwave, and make sure they are accessible to all residents.

Challenges with action plans and budget

– On paper, it seems easy to handle heat, but today many cities fail in their efforts. First, it can be difficult to produce and maintain a database with details on which residents are most vulnerable to heat: this applies to cities in all parts of the world. Secondly, how do you ensure that cities actually reach out to these groups with information? Older people in particular may not be as used to texting, Facebook and Whatsapp.

The biggest problem, however, according to Maryam Nastar, is that vulnerable groups often find it difficult to access support, and that there is not enough budget to implement measures in all parts of the city.

– What should these groups do when they receive information about a heatwave? Many elderly people today live alone and do not receive help with fluid intake and cooling. The other group, who are socially and economically disadvantaged, often live far from cold rooms, green areas, and pools, and lack water and electricity, at least in India. Even in Canada and the United States, where most people have access to water and electricity, asphalt and concrete exacerbate the heating effect, and poorer people have less access to air conditioning at home and green spaces in their neighborhoods. 

Support and measures must be about more than just climate adaptation and reducing emissions

Maryam Nastar emphasises that heat action plans have to be more long-term - and above all include efforts to strengthen social networks, reduce inequality and provide quality housing for all residents.

– In the media currently, the focus is on preventing heat waves by drastically reducing our emissions. But in my opinion, it is not the extremeness of weather conditions (caused by climate change) that kills people. It is unequal access to resources, may that be water, electricity, green spaces or social network and support, that we can no longer ignore if we want to save lives of people and to be prepared for a hot future. This perspective is almost completely missing in what is written in the media at the moment.

She takes an example from Ahmedabad. Major investments are being made in developing new modern and hi-tech districts that will attract businesses, investments and tourists. At the same time, social houses for poor people are so substandardly built or rents are not affordable for many so that they end up living in slums with less amenities. 

– In all cities, there are areas that are less equipped to cope with heat. In the western world, we also have more pronounced problems with isolation and loneliness, which in itself, is a result of extreme individualism and competitive self-interest promoted in our societies in different ways. People have become so busy with day-to-day life and their nuclear family that they hardly have time to check on the elderly regularly. But should we blame individuals for not having time or resources, or should it be the responsibility of the state to provide responsive care services for the older citizens? These are things that need to be addressed in future action plans. Otherwise, more people will die, if not from heat, then from drought or floods.

More equally distributed measures can reduce deaths

Predictions point toward climate change making heatwaves more extreme, prolonged, and frequent in the future. Nevertheless, Maryam Nastar believes there are good opportunities for cities to better protect their residents.

– By combining efforts for climate adaptation and emission reductions with measures to create more equal cities and better social networks, I believe we can avoid some of the heat-related deaths we see today. The main thing is to step away from the current, very limited, approach to tackling heat, where climate adaptation and mitigation take centre stage as opposed to efforts to push for a more holistic and equal city development, where people’s wellbeing and ability to thrive is in focus, she concludes. 

Read Maryam Nastar's research and analysis of Ahmedabad's heat action plan, published in Urban Science, ’Message Sent, Now What? A Critical Analysis of the Heat Action Plan in Ahmedabad, India’

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