Cities must beat the heat, but they face a lot of challenges!

On 29 May 2024, a few days ahead of Heat Action Day, the Global Cities Hub co-organized an event with the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre on “Cities beat the heat”.

With heatwaves being on the rise globally, occurring earlier in the summer, getting both longer and hotter due to climate change, we felt it was important to look at this phenomenon through an urban lens. Extreme heat poses great risks to cities and these risks worsen with global warming. Cities are already warmer than their nearby rural areas, due to the urban heat island effect, and as the world urbanizes, the number of people impacted by extreme heat will unfortunately increase over the years.

The event gathered the Chief heat officer of Dhaka North, Bangladesh, a representative of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Climate Centre as well as climate experts working on heat perceptions and indoor heat risks.

Heat has become a new danger, which perception is not always very high among the population. That’s particularly the case in cities where extreme heat events go unreported and where the impact of heat on people’s health is largely undocumented. All panellists thus pointed to the lack of data (health, mortality, people’s coping mechanisms towards heat, etc.), the lack of standard definition of heatwaves and the fact that it is mainly the urban poor and other vulnerable groups who are being disproportionately affected by extreme heat.

As a consequence, it is a challenge to mobilize political willingness, capacities and resources within cities’ administration to respond to increasing heatwaves in a consistent and sustainable manner. A strong call was made for cities to create the right administrative structures and dedicate sufficient resources to run the multiple projects needed to enhance urban heat resilience and to engage the local communities.  

Some cities have started designing heat action plans, which is one of the main tools to ensure a more unified approach on extreme heat and a way to promote collaboration among relevant municipal sectors and stakeholders (including local communities, and in particular the most vulnerable groups) who have to be involved to effectively beat the heat. Exchanges are occurring among various cities and these have proven useful to learn from one another.

Urban heat is undoubtedly becoming a main concern for many cities worldwide. It raises a lot of environmental and health challenges and issues which are interconnected and compounded because of the heavily built environment and growth of informal settlements. Several international organizations such as the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies or UNEP, as well as city networks such as C40, Resilient Cities Network. At the intersection of health and environment, the Global Cities Hub will remain engaged on urban heat, partnering with stakeholders in International Geneva and beyond.    

To get a more detailed account of the conversation:

Aynur Kadihasanoglu from the Red Cross and Red Crescent Climate Centre, introduced the work of the Centre, in particular to help local communities getting better prepared to withstand extreme heat in urban environments. For that, the Climate centre helps cities prepare inclusive heat action plans, set-up or establish early warning systems, organize information campaigns, facilitate and co-design processes that are locally relevant. The Centre also conducts research and Aynur referred to the report just released on “Climate Change and the Escalation of Global Extreme Heat: Assessing and Addressing the risks”. In addition, Aynur also referred to the work of the Movement of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, in particular through its volunteers in the field assisting people in vulnerable situation, undertaking awareness campaigns and facilitating the inclusion of local communities in city heat action plans (for instance in Nepal, Bangladesh, Honduras and Tanzania).

Bushra Afreen, Chief Heat Officer of Dhaka North in Bangladesh, pointed out to the numerous challenges she faces: lack of data on heat, mortality and health; lack of structures and hence policies to deal with climate resilience within the city administration; lack of awareness about the risks of extreme heat among the population; complex interconnectedness of issues (water, energy, roads, buildings, etc.) and multiplicity of stakeholders that should be involved in addressing extreme heat but who mainly work in silos. While a lot of work has been done on disaster resilience against floods and cyclones, there is still much to be done on extreme heat, which has become a new danger in Dhaka. Bushra underlined that extreme heat affects people unequally. For instance, unlike men, most women are not able to adjust their clothing or remove layers during heat season; women usually refrain from drinking water during the day, because they want to avoid using public washrooms perceived as being unsafe and unclean since childhood; public space needs to be redesigned to enable women to use it equally with men and be able to sit under the shade to rest during heatwaves.

Several measures have been taken to concretely beat the heat in Dhaka. Although the great majority of green spaces have disappeared over the years, urban forests, wetlands (cf. also the Hatirjheel area) and water canals are being revived. Further, awareness-raising campaigns are being conducted with the distribution lightweight portable fans to educate people about the risks of extreme heat. Surveys are also being run to get more data about people’s attitudes and practices towards heat, to better understand people’s vulnerabilities and how it affects marginalized groups.  

While appointing a chief heat officer is a great first step to protect people’s health from extreme heat, it is not sufficient. There is a need to truly institutionalize heat action within city administration and within other government agencies”, Bushra emphasized. Indeed, her position is currently supported by the Arsht Rock Foundation and will unfortunately end next year. Bushra is trying to change that within the city administration and to raise funds externally, for instance with the Asian Development Bank who could assist on developing an inclusive heat action plan for Dhaka. This heat action plan will have to prioritize vulnerable communities, such as women, children, persons with disabilities, transgender persons, and take into account that 38% of the population in Dhaka lives in informal settlements.  Further, the heat action plan should help the city raise resources for new activities. While money can be found to build new roads or buildings, raising resources to conduct a survey on the impact of heat is much more challenging.      

In addressing urbanization, Joyce Kimutai, a climate scientist from World Weather Attribution, emphasized the rapidity of the phenomenon in the “Global South”, resulting in the massive growth of informal settlements. This in turn leads to inequalities when it comes to heat exposure, given that most of the population lives in crowded informal settlements with poor access to cooling facilities. There is low perception about heat risks because there is little documenting about the impact of heat in these places. Most extreme heat events being unreported, there is little understanding about them and their impact on people’s health. Further, there lacks a standard definition of extreme heat. Joyce has therefore worked with partners to define thresholds for heatwaves in three Kenyan cities, the objective being to develop early warning systems for Nairobi’s informal settlements and more broadly, a heat action plan for Nairobi. She emphasized this plan should be guided by user needs. For that, surveys have been conducted and local communities have been engaged, so to as disseminate information about heatwaves in a more targeted and effective manner.   

Nausheen H. Anwar, Member of the WMO-WHO technical group on indoor heat risks to health, pointed out that although we mainly think of people’s home when we address indoor heat risks, there are many other places where the risks are also significant, such as care homes, schools, health facilities, prisons. We need to define safe indoor thresholds, since internal body temperatures can rise to dangerous levels, leading to heart rate increase, dehydration due to excess sweating, etc. Nausheen recalled that in the “Global South”, people do not always have access to electricity or water and also lack ventilation systems, thus compounding the impact of heat on people’s health. There exist clear linkages between extreme heat and loss of livelihood. For instance, female domestic workers who work indoor, are badly impacted by indoor heat and are therefore less productive. Nausheen thus called upon engineers, architects, builders, interior designers and urban planners to take into account the risks of indoor heat into their work. The discussions on heat who usually involve medical and health scientists should also engage with these professions, who are crucial to address indoor heat risks.

An important concept that was put forward by Nausheen was “thermal inequality/injustice”. She encouraged us to think about the impact of extreme heat in structural terms, with vulnerabilities being compounded for certain ethnic, gender, religion, age, etc. groups. “When we look at extreme heat, we should think of the kind of built environment becoming weaponized against the urban poor. It is a form of structural violence”.

The event recording may be found here.

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