How can Europe adapt to extreme heat?

Sonia Phalnikar

How can Europe adapt to extreme heat?

Originally posted by DW News on 17 July 2022

Intense heatwaves will become more common in Europe as the effects of climate change worsen. What solutions have other heat-stricken regions used to alleviate the risks?

a young man pours a bottle of water on himself

Countries across Europe are bracing themselves for a sweltering wave of heat over the next week, with mercury bulbs in some regions expected to register record temperatures.

In Spain, where temperatures have already spiked at 46C (115F), authorities have warned of health risks resulting from exposure to extreme heat, and urged people to stick to shaded or air-conditioned spaces and drink copious amounts of water.

"It is affecting large parts of Europe and it will intensify," World Meteorological Organization spokesperson Clare Nullis told a press briefing in Geneva on Tuesday.

As the effects of climate change continue to worsen and bouts of extreme summer heat become the norm in Europe, warnings like these will become less and less exceptional. The continent's historically mild climate is changing rapidly, and that poses myriad challenges as countries attempt to adapt.

These are problems familiar to some of the most heat-prone areas in the world. Many of the solutions they have developed to beat the heat might offer useful models for Europe as well.

Changing how we live and work

Many people in Europe are still thinking of high temperatures as a novelty and unaware of the dangers they pose to health. Health authorities like the British National Health Service have been urging the public to change their habits, avoiding the sun between 11am and 3pm and learning to spot the early signs of heatstroke.

In heat-stricken regions across the world, even more comprehensive awareness campaigns and community-driven responses are used to encourage people to change their habits of working, socializing and exercising during dangerously hot periods.

Ahmedabad in western India, which suffers from regular bouts of extreme heat, has developed a series of Heat Action Plans in the last decade that coordinate responses between the state and local communities. When a heat alert is issued, warnings are delivered by TV, radio and text message, and a special heat hotline is advertised in public spaces.

Community health groups are tasked with reaching the vulnerable; employers are urged to provide shade and rest for workers, many of whom labor outdoors; and temples, libraries and bus stops are repurposed as cooling centers and water distribution points.

Indien | Obdachlose in Neu-Delhi

Homeless people take refuge in the shade of a bridge on a blistering day in Delhi

Employers in Europe will have to change their attitudes to working outdoors or in poorly ventilated spaces, even if it comes at the cost of productivity. German unions have already suggested that on particularly hot days, workers should be entitled to extended lunchtime breaks in sheltered places provided by their employer.

"[Employers] have to protect their workers and then governments have to ensure that workers are protected as well… whether it's siestas, getting flexible working hours, starting earlier or providing more frequent breaks," Sari Kovats, a professor of public health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, told DW.

Heat-proofing heathcare systems

Summer has traditionally been a period of relative calm for European health services, but with extreme heat occurring every more frequently, healthcare systems need to prepare for increases in patients caused by heatwaves.

Studies have found that heatwaves increase emergency rooms visits by at least 10%, as many people arrive reporting symptoms of dehydration, heat stroke and nausea. Over-65s are particularly at risk, meaning large sections of Europe's ageing population are highly vulnerable.

On current trends and without further adaptation, annual deaths related to extreme heat in the EU could rise from around 2,700 per year to 30-50,000 in 2050, according to a European Commission paper published last year.

A woman sits on Po's dry riverbed

The intense heat is drying out riverbeds across Europe

Preparedness has increased across Europe since the deadly summer of 2003, when temperatures over 40C led to hospitals in France being overwhelmed by patients, particularly the elderly. Now cities like Paris have extensive surveilance systems and special Heat Action Plans.

But Kovats said awareness of the health dangers of heat can still be improved.

"There's sort of a lack of awareness amongst frontline staff, nurses and doctors... and there's also a lack of awareness in the general public, so people often don't perceive themselves at risk," she said.

The state of Odisha in eastern India has achieved success in reducing heat deaths since a deadly heatwave in 1998 that killed more than 2,000 people. There, text messages and billboards are used to issue public health warnings to vulnerable people when temperatures reach dangerous levels, while hospitals create temporary wards for heat-related illnesses and boost staff numbers.

A tourists holds a paper umbrella to protect herself from the sun near the Colosseum in Rome

Umbrellas are an increasingly common sight in summer in Europe

Because intense heat can damage power grids, healthcare infrastructure needs fallback measures. Hospitals in Alabama and California have lost power during heat waves, resulting in soaring indoor temperatures. Newer hospitals in the US are required to have backup power generation to guarantee continued air-conditioning.

Cooler, more sustainable cities

Vietnam's capital Hanoi has incorporated cooling into its 2030 development masterplan, which ensures that existing green areas are protected from the city's rapid expansion, and aims to increase the density of tree and water coverage in the center by seven times per person. As a result, urban temperatures are predicted to be roughly the same in 2030 as they were in 2011, despite an expected increase in population of 2.5 million.

Cities also need to reduce temperatures indoors, especially in homes and workplaces. Air conditioning is a common solution, but is expensive and environmentally damaging.

The Mahila Housing Trust, which operates across 10 cities in India, works with women in low-income areas to help them find affordable solutions to overheated homes. Painting walls and roofs with reflective paint can repel up to 80% of sunlight's energy, and adding creepers, soil and potted plants on top of homes can reduce temperatures inside by as much as 2.5C.

Ahmedabad-based architect Yatin Pandya has looked to traditional forms of architecture to find sustainable solutions for dealing with heat. Many western-style buildings in cities like Bangalore are  constructed with steel and glass exteriors and require constant air-conditioning. But centuries before this was an option, Indian homes used awnings and bay windows to provide shade, and courtyards and shuttered windows to create cooling airflows.

"It's not about turning the clock backwards, but vernacular [architecture] gives you a lot of insight into the local responses in the pre-electricity days," Pandya told DW.

 "Those were very simple logical principles which today can easily be adapted."

Edited by: Sonia Phalnikar

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