The Impact of Heatwaves for those Living in Poverty


TACOMA, Washington — In its simplest form, a heatwave is characterized by several days of uncharacteristically, extremely hot weather. However, the danger lies in the temperature since many areas will experience heat far beyond historical norms. This disproportionately affects those living in poverty who have limited options to beat the heat.

The Affect of Heatwaves

How do heatwaves occur in the first place? The science is simple. Heatwaves involve a “high-pressure system that forces air downward” instead of allowing it to rise. Without an outside force to cool it down, the air has nothing stopping it from getting hotter.

Although heatwaves fall in line with other severe weather conditions, the event rarely receives the same attention. They strike silently, without leaving behind a visible mess like flooded streets or flattened neighborhoods. The impact of heatwaves becomes apparent much later. Infrastructure spanning from transportation to clean water access deteriorates while the electrical grid works overtime to ensure survival. As the high temperatures skyrocket, modern-day cooling systems, like airconditioning units, run at full blast.

Plan B: Long Live the Electrical Grid

A constricted electrical grid begs the question of how cities mitigate the effects of a heatwave when safety measures are not always foolproof. With summers getting increasingly hotter, air conditioners are no longer viewed as luxury items but rather as necessities. As a result of a 2001 study by S.M. Rinaldi, J.P. Peerenboom and T.K. Kelly, “reliable electric power is central to city development and economic stability” along with its role in the survival of entire industries.

By employing methods to minimize the impact of heatwaves, the strain on transmission lines, distribution facilities and grid components themselves become apparent. The pressure from both sides of the grid puts immense strain on the system. This results in an increased chance that electrical power grids in cities across the globe will face a blackout. Essentially, what is left is a backup plan built around an electrical grid that keeps the heat at bay for millions.

Due to unprecedented temperatures, these components, which handle the entire cooling load, are at risk of failure. And if they fail, citizens would depend entirely on the capacity of cooling centers. The safety of citizens would also depend on the likelihood that cities will be able to install backup generators or face the full effect of the heat.

Widening the Gap

While the effects of a heatwave reach nearly everyone, those without the proper resources are disproportionately affected. Without air conditioning to mitigate extreme climate conditions, heatwaves pose a very real problem to those without amenities. Compared to the U.S., where almost 90% of households have air conditioning, fewer than 5% of homes in places like India do.

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) explains that developing nations will face the brunt of the impact due to location, reliance on natural resources and the inability to adapt to a changing climate quickly. In developing countries, those who can afford to place air cooling devices in their homes are part of the minority. For many, the reliance on city cooling centers with backup generators is the only option amid a heatwave.

University of Wisconsin Professor Richard Keller writes, “a cooling center is an excellent resource…but a poor 85-year-old with severely arthritic knees or a broken hip is unlikely to be able to descend a seven-story spiral staircase in order to access it.”

What Does This Mean for Poverty Eradication?

Extreme temperatures spell out a number of consequences for residents of developing countries by interfering with all aspects of life. In addition to increasing the likelihood of suffering from heat-related illnesses, heatwaves also prevent people from working or attending school. The relative effect on investment and the economy is a mere afterthought in estimations for substantial loss of life.

The poor and the elderly who are not able to afford A/C units may rely on cooling centers to survive. However, these centers pose problems of their own. The threat of a blackout in electrical power systems due to heatwaves is likely, and then cooling centers are unable to withstand the influx of bodies. Today, people should not consider backup generators just as a backup but rather as the most important resource available to beat the heat.

Handling the impact of heatwaves will require the installation of new infrastructure capable of weathering the changing climate and built with the intention of putting the most vulnerable out of harm’s way first.

Nicole Yaroslavsky
Photo: Flickr


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