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From insurance to ‘digital twins’, innovation to cut heat risks

India woman farmer

When temperatures surge above 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit), farmers in India’s state of Gujarat have little choice but to brave the heat to work their fields and feed and milk the cows - or face losing crucial income.


“What will we eat if we choose not to work in heat? How should we earn our livelihoods to run our households?” asks Jashodaben Ravjibhai Parmar, who lives about an hour’s drive southeast of Ahmedabad, where temperatures hit 43 degrees Celsius in May as record heat baked northern India. 


But she - and tens of thousands of other women farmers, salt pan workers and jewelry makers in Gujarat - are now trying out a new way to battle the the risks and losses from extreme heat: heat insurance.


When temperatures cross a pre-set heat threshold on a scorching day, Parmar and other policyholders receive a small payment designed to make up for losses in their businesses if they stay home to protect their health and their families, or are forced to cut their working hours or suffer losses of stock or other assets in the heat. 

About 92 percent of 50,000 women insured through India's Self-Employed Women's Association (SEWA) and Climate Resilience for All received such insurance payouts this record-setting heat season, with 100 percent of insured women also receiving small cash payments to make up for lost income as temperatures passed lower thresholds.


“When there is excessive heat, and if we are unable to work for a few days, we can get some help through the insurance,” Parmar said. Without such protection, “we have to work no matter what.”


Such payments can be made repeatedly during the heat season, providing a financial cushion and giving women the option not to work temporarily when temperatures reach dangerous levels.


As global heat threats driven by climate change continue to surge - New Delhi hit a likely record of 52.9 degrees Celsius (127 degrees Fahrenheit) in May - finding effective, affordable ways to lower heat risks, especially for the most vulnerable, is becoming urgent.

A report released in May by World Weather Attribution scientists, who seek to quantify the role of climate change in extreme events, said about 78 percent of the global population had experienced at least a month of extreme heat over the last 12 months - something now two times more likely as a result of climate change.

 “What will we eat if we choose not to work in heat? How should we earn our livelihoods to run our households?”

Jashodaben Ravjibhai Parmar, Farmer



To combat the growing risks, cities and communities around the world are experimenting with a range of adaptations and innovations designed to lower the risks of death and illness from heat and protect incomes and economies.


In increasingly sweltering Athens, for instance, Greek researchers are developing an AI-supported and data-rich “digital twin” of the city that could help policymakers and other decision-makers experiment virtually with ideas to curb reduce heat risk - such as planting trees or adding cooling water features - and see how the changes affect expected mortality from extreme heat.

Backers of the project - which is expected to be duplicated in Prague and other cities as well - hope to combine it with a broader planetary-scale digital twin effort called Destination Earth to offer the public and other users an interactive experience where they can see what their city would look like during a heatwave with and without changes to lower heat risks. 


In one planned scenario, a mother and son in 2060 rush in their car toward a cooling center during a 50 degree Celsius heatwave that has led to power supplies in Athens failing. One side of their windshield view shows a gray and wilted city without heat-reducing interventions, while the other portrays a better-prepared metropolis, with tree-shaded pedestrian walkways and cooling water features.


“The idea is you have this digital replica of a real environment. You can play around with different scenarios and try them on the digital replica before you implement them in the real environment, to see what the impact will be,” said Iphigenia Keramitsoglou, research director in Earth observation at the National Observatory of Athens and one of the people working on the digital twin.


Other innovations to help lower heat risk are much simpler. In the north of Bangladesh’s capital of Dhaka, for instance, the municipality’s chief heat officer noticed women moving around the city rarely took time to sit in parks or other cool space during their journey, in part because of concerns about being bothered by men who tend to frequent the spaces.


The municipality has since banned smoking in public - a favorite activity of men loitering in parks - which has helped make public green spaces less male-dominated and women feel safer in them, said Bushra Afreen, the chief heat officer of Dhaka North.


Another key to keeping women safer from rising heat in steamy Dhaka - a crowded city of 20 million - is changing long-time practices, such as women drinking as little water as possible if they go out to make it less likely they will need to use public restrooms, seen as dirty or unsafe.


“Now we need the message that if you don’t drink water your life will be in danger, that this is a completely different world we’re living in and we have to take care of ourselves and push ourselves into doing things we’re not used to,” Afreen said, noting the city is also planning to build more and better public restrooms and distribute small hand fans printed with basic advice on staying safe in hot weather.


In many other hot cities around the world, innovations ranging from adding public cooling centers - with sufficient public transport to reach them - to rethinks of architectural and building codes, and developing detailed heat action plans for slum communities similarly aim to hold the line on fast-rising heat risks.


Joyce Kimutai, a Nairobi-based climate scientist working with the World Weather Attribution project, said lowering heat risk in many cases starts with simply helping people long accustomed to heat understand it is becoming far more deadly than before.


“There are actually very low perceptions of heat” vulnerability, she said, and very little data is collected across African countries to document the scale of the problem, which can then perpetuate a sense heat isn’t a serious threat.


In Japan, where recognition of growing heat threats is quickly mounting, mobile phone users can now use their devices to buy short-term health insurance policies for heat-related illnesses.

India farmer 1 - smoke.jpg


As fossil fuel use drives rising global temperatures, insurance can offer protection against heat-related losses, but will need to be combined with other efforts to reduce heat exposure, such as offering home-based workers solar lamps to help them shift their work to cooler evening hours, or giving vendors tarps or cool boxes to keep themselves and their wares cooler, said Kathy Baughman McLeod, the CEO of Climate Resilience for All.

Parmar, the farmer who bought the coverage, said it has offered “a certain relief.”


“If there is extreme heat, and if we have insurance, we can feel some sense of support if we choose not to go out,” she said.

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