Submitted by Sheikh Khairul Rahaman, German Red Cross Bangladesh
8 Sep 2021 , last updated 8 Sep 2021

The Story of Heatwave Anticipatory Action in Dhaka, Bangladesh

It is 150 years since the British meteorologist James Glaisher of ‘Travels in the Air,’ a book about his death-defying travels in the air. For example, in 1862 he flew 37,000 feet in a gas balloon to better understand the science of the weather.

Over the years, the science of weather observation has progressed enormously – but the weather itself has also changed dramatically. As I write this, wildfires are razing areas across the Western United States, Canada and Europe. July 2021 was the world’s hottest month ever, and Asia also recorded its warmest July ever. And as global temperatures rise, heatwaves are becoming hotter, longer and more frequent.

The good news is there is a link between these two processes. With technological advancements and scientific breakthroughs, heatwaves can now be predicted. By applying anticipatory action, such heatwaves could be anticipated, and early actions can be implemented before the occurrence of heatwaves to reduce their impact, human suffering and losses. That’s what we - the German Red Cross (GRC), the Bangladesh Red Crescent Society (BDRCS), the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre (RCCC) and the Bangladesh Meteorological Department (BMD) - are doing in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

Feasibility study and stakeholder consultations

During the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, we conducted a feasibility study to pilot heatwave anticipatory action in Dhaka. Then, in 2021, two rounds of stakeholder consultations were conducted to validate and strengthen the study’s findings on thresholds, triggers and early actions for heatwave in Dhaka.

Our study revealed that people working outdoors, such as van/rickshaw pullers, street vendors, construction workers and pedestrians, are most exposed to heatwaves. People living in informal settlements, with poor housing conditions and low incomes, bear the brunt of the impacts. The elderly, infants, young children, people with underlying health conditions, and pregnant women are also disproportionately impacted by the extreme heat.

Due to the urban heat island (UHI) effect, in which urban areas are hotter than their surroundings, the impact on the livelihoods and wellbeing of these vulnerable groups are particularly disrupted. Furthermore, people who have had, or are recovering from, Covid-19 are particularly vulnerable to heatwaves. This is because up to half of these people suffer from an acute kidney injury, meaning they have a reduced capacity to cope with heat stress.
 

Testing heatwave anticipatory action through simulation

To continue advancing our heatwave anticipatory action efforts in Dhaka, a simulation was conducted from 24 April to 3 May 2021 to test the triggers and early actions for heatwaves. A global forecast model for temperature (by ECMWF) with 10 days of lead-time, and national forecasts (by BMD) with 5 days of lead-time, were identified by the study team and used for the pre-activation and activation stages of the simulation, respectively.

To reduce the above-mentioned impacts of heatwaves on the most vulnerable people, a number of appropriate early actions were designed. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, a strict nationwide lockdown was in place during the heatwaves. Therefore, a scenario-based plan was developed to contextualize the early actions for two different scenarios: with and without strict lockdowns. Appropriate sets of early actions, based on the situation on the ground, were selected for these simulations. As the city was in a strict lockdown scenario, multi-purpose cash grants and awareness raising were the two key actions implemented on the ground.

Impacts of the heatwave early actions

To measure the effectiveness of these early actions, a post-distribution monitoring (PDM) exercise was conducted 15 days after the intervention. Data from the PDM revealed that 92.7% of beneficiaries (41.5% female and 51.2% male) fully used the multi-purpose cash grant of 4,500 BDT (around 45 EUR), whereas 7.3% beneficiaries (all male) used the grant partially. The majority of beneficiaries (86%) indicated that they spent most of the money on food, while 79% used a portion of the money for medical expenses. Beneficiaries also invested portions of the grants in essential household items (28%), room-cooling items (16%) and education (14%).

All the beneficiaries reported that the cash support was timely and was effective at dealing with the heatwave and Covid-19. Around 81% of the beneficiaries expressed that the cash grant was very effective and played a key role to support the family during the heatwave, while 19% considered it partially effective as an alternative form of compensation.

We also learnt from this simulation that many beneficiaries had migrated from rural areas to Dhaka after suffering from the impacts of past flood events, while the Covid-19 pandemic was exacerbating their vulnerability to heatwaves. The following testimonies are from beneficiaries with this experience.

Ms. Sharmin, is still traumatized by the impact of the 2007 devastating flood in the Padma River basin. The river overwhelmed her family’s house and main source of income source - an acre of farmland. This forced them to join the hundreds of climate migrants now based in Dhaka.

"The river erosion has left me homeless. Now, I am displaced to this city,” she said. “Hostile extreme heat and Covid-19 have closed almost all avenues of our income. The cash grant was a great support to us – it was very timely, which saved my family from a state of extreme hardship.

For Ms. Nur Nesa, 2008 was the darkest year of her life., “Cyclone Nargis completely destroyed our home. Our homestead land and cropland were eroded and washed away by the rise of water levels, [and a] strong storm surge at the estuary of the Payra and Bishkhali rivers. With two sons and a daughter, I moved to Dhaka from Patuakhali in search of a better life and livelihood. I hardly knew that another phase of struggle was waiting for me in Dhaka city.”

Ms. Nur Nesa received BDT 4,500 under the early action initiative, and with this she was able to buy food and medicine. “Your 4,500 taka [BDT] was worth a Lakha taka [BDT 100,000] to me at that time. This money has played a big role in saving my life. I pray for you.”

During the simulation, families were dealing with dual hazards: a heatwave and the Covid-19 pandemic. Around 45% of the beneficiaries reported that the cash support compensated their loss of income exclusively due to the heatwave, while 55% reported that it recovered the losses incurred due to the heatwave and the Covid-19 lockdown.

Considering the strict lockdown, the awareness-generation activities were limited to miking (the use of loudspeakers to share information) and the distribution of leaflets. Just over 62% of the PDM respondents stated that they received the heatwave information through this awareness campaign. Among these, 55.56% reported that they were fully satisfied with the information received, and 6.67% were somewhat satisfied.
 

Coordination and cooperation

A large number of stakeholders need to be engaged to implement heatwave early action in Dhaka. To ensure all the necessary actors were involved, we started by mapping the stakeholders, starting with local and national government authorities, forecast-based financing actors, and technical agencies. Meetings were conducted to define the roles that each actor would play.

This resulted in effective collaboration among many of these actors, with a number of milestones already achieved. For example, during the heatwave simulation, the BMD played an important role in monitoring the heatwave and providing forecast information. The City Corporation and ward-level office were central to testing (through simulation) the heatwave early actions.

The feasibility study findings were validated in consultation with these stakeholders and published jointly with BMD on 9 September 2021. We are looking forward to continuing our work together with the BMD, the City Corporation and other stakeholders: to build on this pilot for heatwave early action, to develop an Early Action Protocol, and to expand this work to other areas of the country.

This blog was written by Sheikh Khairul Rahaman, German Red Cross Bangladesh. For more information please contact him at khairul.sheikh(at)germanredcross.de