What Can India Teach Us About Dealing With Climate Change?

An Indian public-health official thinks the United States could learn a thing or two from her country about dealing with climate change (and vice versa).
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The Mumbai, India, skyline. (Photo: Jimmy - S/Flickr)

The Mumbai, India, skyline. (Photo: Jimmy - S/Flickr)

India recently announced its plans to cut carbon pollution, ahead of the big climate talks taking place in Paris next month. The country intends to generate 40 percent of its energy from low- or no-carbon sources by 2030, while also seeking to reduce its carbon emissions per unit of GDP by up to 35 percent.

More than other nations, India is already on the front lines of the fight against climate change. Its cities are already sweltering, and with 300 million people living in poverty—nearly the entire population of the United States—they are especially vulnerable to climate disruptions.

A delegation of Indian health and climate officials visited New York last month as part of a knowledge exchange with their American counterparts, sponsored by Natural Resources Defense Council. OnEarth sat down with Sujata Saunik, principle secretary of the Public Health Department in Maharashtra, India’s second-most populous state and home to the sprawling Mumbai metropolis, to talk about how her country is dealing with climate change.

How are India’s cities faring in the face of global warming?

Climate change is affecting our cities in a big way. Anytime there is excessive rain or a gap in the monsoon season, many people lay the blame on climate change. Because it is a recent phenomenon, we can’t produce the evidence to back it up each time, so politically we are unable to make such statements from a public platform. But we see the change happening around us.

Heat waves are a special problem in Maharashtra. The problem isn’t just the maximum but the minimum temperatures as well. On a day when you have temperatures above 45 degrees Celsius [113 degrees Fahrenheit], the minimum won’t go below 36 degrees [96.8 degrees Fahrenheit].

These types of days force adjustments to daily life on a regular basis. Hospitals see a spurt of patients with dizziness, exhaustion, and heat-stroke symptoms. It impacts the elderly and the young. Some children spend hours commuting to and from school. We see dips in school and office attendance.

The heat especially impacts the homeless and those living in poorer neighborhoods, who have to be outdoors for their livelihoods—taxi and rickshaw drivers, street vendors, and construction workers.

What can U.S. cities learn from India’s experience?

The scale is different in India. The numbers we deal with are huge compared to the numbers that are dealt with in the U.S.

In addition, we have a great deal to offer by showing how to work with limited resources. Indian people know how to make due with very little because of our traditions and social behaviors. We have more resilience, if I may say so.

In the health-care context, for example, Indian workers easily fall back on paper charts or simple notepads in a power outage. Staff members keep simple and inexpensive supplies, like handheld torches, or use their cell phones as a source of light. Some places have solar panels installed to provide an alternate source of energy during outages, and software applications have offline modules for data entry when the Internet is down.

In heat-prone areas, buildings have high ceilings and window placement promoting cross ventilation. Most buildings are not high, so workers use stairs in the absence of electricity. In flood-prone areas, buildings and houses are constructed on elevated platforms so that they do not get drowned during floods. Today, all new construction uses green-building and water-harvesting measures.

What can Indian officials learn from Americans about emergency preparedness?

The most interesting part of our visit was seeing how academic research feeds into public policy in the States, especially into preparation for emergencies and training for responses from various government agencies. We have research in India, but it hasn’t linked up enough with policy.

For example, Mount Sinai and the New York City Department of Public Health have done research specifically into how climate change is affecting children. It shows how climate change will lead to increased health-care costs and an economic slowdown. Without a proper response, when these kids become adults, they will be less able to contribute. I’d like to see the same kind of research and analysis in my public-health department so I can follow trends and be aware of what sorts of mid-term corrections I need to make.

This post originally appeared on Earthwire as “Heat Exchange” and is re-published here under a Creative Commons license.

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