On March 31, two mandals in coastal Andhra Pradesh — Kurichedu in Prakasam district and Pedapadu in West Godavari — recorded temperatures of 45.9 degrees Celsius, the highest in the state. Last year, the maximum temperatures recorded in March in Prakasam was 44.2 degrees, and in West Godavari, it was 42.5 degrees. The high temperatures which have arrived early this year have triggered fears over the heatwave conditions in the coming months, which are expected to be even hotter. Schools have already been instructed to have half-days in view of rising COVID-19 cases as well as rising temperatures in the state. According to the IMD forecast, severe heatwave conditions are predicted in parts of coastal Andhra Pradesh over Friday and Saturday as well.
The number and intensity of potentially deadly heatwaves are only expected to rise as a result of climate change. Andhra Pradesh is one of the states where on average, mean maximum temperatures during summer have been on the rise, according to the India Meteorological Department (IMD). In August 2020, the state government declared heatwaves as a state specific disaster.
In 2015 alone, a total of 1,369 people died from heat stroke, according to the Andhra Pradesh State Disaster Management Authority (APSDMA). Since then, the state government has been implementing a detailed action plan in place to prevent heatwave related deaths. The duration of the heatwave period has been increasing in parts of the state over the years, according to the APSDMA, with peak temperatures increasing each year in the coastal districts, going beyond 45 degrees Celsius.
The action plan for 2021 was devised after a heatwave preparedness meeting conducted with district officials in the month of February.
Humidity in coastal districts
In Andhra, the humidity in the nine coastal districts combined with the high temperatures further reduces the ‘thermal comfort’, making people more prone to suffer heat stress disorders even at 37 to 38 degrees Celsius. The state authorities identify heatwave affected areas based not just on maximum daily temperatures, but also the ‘thermal heat index’, which takes both humidity and temperature into account.
Monitoring and disseminating weather data
To provide timely warnings to people on impending heatwave conditions, data on temperature and relative humidity is collected from 2,387 automated weather stations (AWS) across the state, on an hourly basis. This real-time data is available on the APSDMA website.
At the mandal level, advisories on heatwave conditions for the next 48 hours are prepared and issued at 4 pm daily to mandal level authorities to take necessary action.
The Information and Public Relations Department is required to release messages to the public and vulnerable groups about the risks and dangers of heat related illnesses, circulate heatwave alerts through SMS and WhatsApp, social media as well as traditional media including radio broadcasts, send SMS alerts to medical professionals at private clinics as well as Primary and Urban Health Centres.
Identifying vulnerable groups
APSDMA identifies service sector workers, including vegetable vendors, mechanics, cab drivers, construction workers, roadside kiosk operators etc. as particularly vulnerable to the heatwave conditions. Outdoor workers, homeless people and elderly people are also more vulnerable to heatwaves. Vulnerable populations also include pregnant or lactating women, children under five years of age, traffic police personnel, persons with disabilities, persons with chronic diseases or immunocompromised diseases, and people using certain medications.
According to the APSDMA, often, the reasons for people not being able to cope with the heat is either not being aware that a heatwave alert has been issued, and not having access to water, shaded areas or medical attention.
Action at department level
- The APSDMA Commissioner (at the state level), District Collectors and Municipal Commissioners are all responsible for issuing heatwave alerts, ensuring availability of staff and supplies like drinking water, communicate locations of emergency facilities and cooling centres or shaded areas with each department under them, and ensure power supply to critical facilities like hospitals.
- Medical and Health Department officials are required to equip all hospitals with heat illness treatment and prevention protocol, availability of ambulance services, adequate supply of ice packs, IV fluids and medicines, and to also deploy additional staff and community health workers for outreach work in at-risk neighbourhoods, if feasible.
- Local bodies including corporations, municipalities and panchayats are responsible for sending out heatwave warnings to residents of high-risk areas and vulnerable sections, set up “cooling centres” in public buildings, temples, schools etc., run temporary night shelters for those without homes, provide access to shaded areas for outdoor workers, setting up drinking water centres (chalivendrams) at market places, labour addas, bus stations etc.
- The Labour Department must encourage employers to alter outdoor workers’ schedules to avoid working in the sun from 12 to 4 pm during a heatwave alert, ensure provision of emergency ice packs and other heat-illness prevention material to construction workers, provision of shelters, water and supply of emergency medicines like ORS, IV fluids etc. at work sites.
- The Rural Development Department is expected to reschedule work hours for MGNREGS works to avoid periods of intense heat.
- The Animal Husbandry Department is required to ensure that field staff visit villages during heatwave for treatment of cattle and poultry birds.
According to the APSDMA, the annual action plans being implemented since 2016 have helped in reducing deaths from heat stroke. After recording 1,369 deaths in 2015, the official number of heatwave related deaths went down to 723 people in 2016 and 236 people in 2017. Only eight heat stroke deaths were recorded in 2018, before the number went up again to 28 in 2019 “due to the worsening of meteorological conditions,” the APSDMA has said. However, it notes that while heat conditions were similar in the summers of 2017 and 2019, the number of deaths were much lower (dropping from 236 to 28).