South Asia needs equitable cooling as heatwaves worsen

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Workers at a construction site on the outskirts of Ahmedabad, India, try to cool themselves during the record-breaking heatwave earlier this year. Photo: Amit Dave / Alamy) Workers at a construction site on the outskirts of Ahmedabad, India, try to cool themselves during the record-breaking heatwave earlier this year. Photo: Amit Dave / Alamy)

At a construction site on the outskirts of New Delhi, Ravinder Kumar, a mason, spends his days slicing giant luminescent slabs of marble. This April and May, as a punishing heatwave swept across India, Kumar, 34, struggled to function. With little protection from the sun, he made a makeshift shelter from a green plastic tarpaulin and a stack of bricks. Still, by the end of the day, Ravinder was suffering from fatigue, headaches, and fever. At night, in a temporary hut on the construction site, sleep eluded him as heat radiated from the hut’s tin roof. Exhausted and unwell but under pressure to earn money for his family, Ravinder continued to work. As temperatures soared to 46 degrees Celsius, he could barely manage eight hours instead of the 10 required by his employer.

The latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change highlights that climate change is making heatwaves more likely. This spring, temperatures hit nearly 50 degree Celsius across India and Pakistan, while Bangladesh and Sri Lanka sweltered under unusually high heat. A study found that the heatwave across India and Pakistan was 30 times more likely this year than 100 years ago, due to climate change. 

Cooling and development go hand-in-hand

Without adequate cooling, these conditions undermine countries’ development. When blistering heat strikes South Asia, the poor and most vulnerable,  like Ravinder Kumar, suffer the worst impacts. When it is too hot to work, wages are lost, pushing families into cycles of poverty. School hours are cut short, depriving children of education and future opportunities. At home, where many people in South Asia live in inadequately ventilated buildings without access to cooling, extreme heat harms people’s health. Meanwhile, fragmented cold chain infrastructure leads to the loss of food and vaccines, putting nutrition and public health at risk.

The economic costs are staggering. With a large percentage of the region’s gross domestic product (GDP) reliant on the heat-stressed shoulders of informal workers, extreme heat does not just jeopardise the health and livelihoods of the working poor, but also the economic productivity of the region. By 2030, lost labour due to rising heat and humidity could risk up to 4.5% of India’s GDP – approximately USD 150-250 billion. Pakistan and Bangladesh could suffer losses of up to 5% of their GDP.

As urban populations grow and temperatures rise across South Asia, so too does the demand for cooling.  Keeping citizens cool while mitigating the environmental impacts – air conditioners and other cooling equipment release powerful greenhouse gases – is a challenge for governments across South Asia, which must prioritise cooling as a development strategy.

Cooling solutions and opportunities in South Asia

In 2019, India became one of the first countries in the world to launch a comprehensive cooling action plan – the India Cooling Action Plan (ICAP), an ambitious initiative to address the country’s cooling needs while reducing climate impacts. In June 2022, Bangladesh published its own National Cooling Plan, while in October last year Pakistan announced it will adopt one by 2026.

For these plans to help vulnerable people like Kumar, countries in the region must reimagine how infrastructure and services in sectors like housing, agriculture and health are delivered.

Take South Asia’s cities, for example, many of which are plagued by high levels of poverty and bad housing conditions. More than 200 million new homes need to be built in South Asia before 2050 to meet housing needs. This provides an opportunity to change the course of urban development in the region and adopt strategies that prioritise thermal comfort. India, Pakistan and Bangladesh are responding to this challenge with affordable housing programmes.

In India, where 10 million new homes need to be built annually to keep up with housing demand, the government’s affordable housing scheme has the opportunity to incorporate nature-based solutions and passive cooling techniques – to prevent heat from building up within homes – into construction and urban planning. That means using climate-friendly insulation materials, like straw, combined with materials that have high thermal mass. According to World Bank Group analysis, space cooling in India alone presents a USD 1.5 trillion opportunity by 2040, of which USD 1.25 trillion is earmarked for residential buildings.

Opportunities to scale up affordable space-cooling technologies exist in housing schemes across the region. In Bangladesh, where the urban population grew from 31 million in 2000 to 65 million in 2020, the World Bank estimates that 250,000 new houses need to be built every year to meet existing shortages . In Pakistan, the government launched a housing programme in 2019 to provide five million housing units for poor and middle-income communities by 2030.

Scaling up high-efficiency common household appliances like brushless ceiling, or BLDC, fans can ensure comfort for millions of people. With ceiling fans among the fastest-selling appliances in the Asia-Pacific region, brushless fans require approximately 65% less energy than regular fans and help save around USD 20 per fan each year in household energy bills. This has been done before. India, for instance, has already seen the uptake of transformative energy-efficient technology at scale with nationwide bulk procurement and distribution of LED lightbulbs. Replicating the LED programme to create a viable market for other energy-efficient technologies like brushless fans also creates an opportunity for economic growth in the region.

Ravinder Kumar (right), a mason in New Delhi. The green tarpaulin rigged up to provide some shade was his sole protection from the scorching temperatures earlier this year. Photo: IORA Ecological Solutions
Ravinder Kumar (right), a mason in New Delhi. The green tarpaulin rigged up to provide some shade was his sole protection from the scorching temperatures earlier this year. Photo: IORA Ecological Solutions.

A strategy to bolster cooling must also include major investments in the cold chain sector in South Asia. In India, the limitations of the cold chain sector mean that about 40% of food produced is lost or wasted every year. The situation is similar in Pakistan and Bangladesh, where it is estimated that 74 kg and 65 kg of food per person respectively are wasted annually. In India, the agricultural sector has an immediate investment need of over USD 11 billion to fill gaps in the cold chain infrastructure, with the potential to create 1.7 million jobs. Most of this investment lies in developing sustainable and energy-efficient end-to-end cold chain networks, including refrigerated transport to preserve food produce and vaccines.

For workers like Ravinder Kumar, this change cannot come fast enough. Kumar supports seven family members back home in Rajasthan on his wage of USD 6 a day. He dreams of working as a security guard as this would allow him to spend more time indoors, out of the heat. New opportunities in new sectors, in a liveable city, would be transformative for him and his family’s future.

This blog post first appeared on the ThirdPole website. This work is part of a collaborative editorial series between the World Bank, ICIMOD and The Third Pole that brings together climate experts and regional voices on “Regional Cooperation for Climate Resilience in South Asia”. The views and opinions expressed by the authors are their own. The series has been funded by the United Kingdom’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office through the Program for Asia Resilience to Climate Change – a trust fund administered by the World Bank.


Abhas Jha

Practice Manager, Climate Change and Disaster Risk Management, South Asia Region

Mehul Jain

Climate Change Specialist, South Asia Climate Change and Disaster Risk Management Unit of the World Bank

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