When Extreme Heat Hits India’s Slums, These Women Cool Things Down—and Save Lives
Years ago, it would get so hot in Meena Soni’s two-room, asbestos-sheet-roofed home that her asthmatic husband would need to go to the hospital several times over the course of a summer. Soni remembers escaping the dwelling’s heat with her two children and finding relief in the shade of a tree. In their Vishwas Nagar neighborhood in the city of Ahmedabad in northwestern India, it’s common for residents to sleep on their roofs at night to give their bodies a chance to cool down.
The temperatures in Vishwas Nagar still get unbearably hot—and climate change continues to fuel extreme heat waves, especially in urban centers like Ahmedabad—but Soni’s home has become much more comfortable since replacing her roof. Thanks to the technology of a cool modular roof she installed with the help of a loan from credit cooperative Mahila Housing SEWA Trust (MHT), her home is consistently 7 to 9 degrees Fahrenheit cooler during the summer. Made from recycled coconut husks and paper waste, removable and waterproof ModRoofs are safer replacements for leak-prone roofs made with asbestos or corrugated tin—building materials common across India’s slums. With the new roof installed above them, Soni now does her tailoring work more comfortably and consistently, her husband weathers the city’s temperature spikes without visits to the hospital, and their children can focus on schoolwork inside their home—along with kids from the neighborhood who drop by to beat the heat.
Extreme heat has been a concern for Ahmedabad and many other city governments for more than a decade. Together with NRDC and other partners, city officials began developing protections in the form of heat action plans in 2009—the year before a devastating heat wave left more than 1,300 people dead across the city. When another heat wave broke a 100-year record of 118 Fahrenheit in 2016, three years after Ahmedabad formally established its early-warning alert system for extreme heat, the city was prepared and the death toll was not as grave: Around 250 people lost their lives. Indeed, a 2018 study found that 2,380 deaths were avoided in the two years following the heat action plan’s implementation in Ahmedabad.
About 100 million of India’s urban population live in slums, where organizations like the 27-year-old MHT have been working directly with women, who tend to face the highest exposures to extreme heat. “They have this dual care role, so when their family starts suffering from the increased heat, that really impacts their lives much worse as compared to the menfolk,” says executive director Bijal Brahmbhatt. The majority of women work from home, in jobs like textile manufacturing or food preparation, and are forced to slow down when conditions become severe. This loss of productivity due to extreme heat, a 2015 study suggests, could cost the Indian economy $450 billion by 2030.
MHT, which works in 34 cities across 8 Indian states, has linked up with Community Action Group (CAG), a group of women leaders, or Vikasinis, in various Ahmedabad neighborhoods, to address climate impacts, such as extreme heat, flooding, water scarcity, and vector-borne diseases. One CAG member named Radhika, for example, not only helped initiate infrastructure improvements for her Vrundavan Park Society neighborhood but also implemented a flash-flood alarm system to alert residents before monsoon waters wreak havoc. Over the years, MHT has also trained more than 1,500 climate saathis, or fellows, to communicate with their neighbors about tactics for coping with climate change and to conduct energy audits in their homes.
In addition to providing loans to more than 500 women for the installation of ModRoofs, MHT, together with NRDC, promotes a more cost-effective and scalable cool roof strategy of painting existing roofs with solar-reflective paint. “It’s not only great for people in the house, but it can also reduce the urban heat island effect if you have a large area of the city covered in cool roofs,” says Sameer Kwatra, who helps lead NRDC’s work in India. In that way, the women are not only helping to keep their families cool but their neighbors too.
Women in these communities play critical roles in building climate resilience by monitoring weather forecasts, working closely with government officials, and educating their neighbors about the dangers of extreme heat. “Previously, they were not part of any decision-making process,” says Bhavna Maheriya, program manager for MHT who oversees the cool roofs effort. “But now they are empowered—they can raise their voices and be part of any decision-making process.”
And the benefits of their active participation in community safety goes way beyond climate change. Because of the women’s established grassroots network, MHT and CAG leaders like Soni were more prepared to act when the COVID-19 pandemic hit Ahmedabad. In the wake of the devastating virus, they delivered food rations, provided personal protective equipment and medical devices like pulse oximeters, and transformed their offices into COVID support centers.
“Resilient communities are resilient not just to climate change, but also to public health disasters,” Kwatra says. “Which is why grassroots organizations like MHT are making a big difference.”
In the slum communities, where up to 10 people can live in one 100-square-foot room, the combined health impacts of COVID-19 and extreme heat were a big test. “It became much worse for them,” Brahmbhatt says. “And now the women are voicing more and more that they would like to get cool roofs in whatever manner they are able to access them.” But the fact that they already had an established network and some climate-resilient measures in place was critical—and will be for next time too.
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