The Increasing Heat: An Unfolding Disaster in South Asia

Ken MacClune and Atalie Pestalozzi write that heat (rising temperature and humidity combine) is an impending disaster for millions of South Asians. The effort to minimize irreversible impacts from this disaster must begin with dialogue for systemic actions than piecemeal and jerky responses.

“There are no separate systems. The world is a continuum. Where to draw a boundary around a system depends on the purpose of the discussion.”― Donella H. Meadows


It is hard to overstate the impact that heat will have on South Asia. Poorer health, reduced human and agricultural productivity (and the resulting decreases in income), less efficient power generation, and increased urbanization, internal and external migration, among its other changes, will each have a resounding impact across all sectors. Taken together, these systemic cross-sector stresses will magnify the impact of heat even further.

 Six years ago, we highlighted the impending impact of climate change on the Ganges Valley.[1] We found that periods of “unrelenting heat” (by heat we mean temperature and humidity combined) would extend for periods long enough to prevent age-old recovery practices like sleeping outdoors at night. As it is, every three or four days, there is a break in heat so that our bodies can recover and repair heat-related strains. By the mid-2020s, climate projections show, these breaks will begin to disappear. Our findings presented a new paradigm—and sparked quite some debate—since they were not part of the common dialogue at the time. In the years since, the impacts of temperature and humidity on health and productivity have been highlighted and are now better known. Yet the dialogue is still limited, with quick fixes—like how, perhaps, more air conditioning can address the challenge —dominating the conversation when, in fact, the greatest impacts are systemic. Working against the clock to minimize irreversible impacts from climate change, we need to think and act systemically when looking at the future.

Number of days when air temperature will rise above human body temperature is increasing. Unprecedented heat-index levels – the heat index will be extreme and “never before seen” levels. and periods that will push already strained systems beyond their thresholds.

Current systems for preparing are inadequate

Thinking systemically means thinking beyond the simple, linear project-planning model of projecting the impact on the project, assessing the vulnerability of the project, and deriving project-specific adaptations. For instance, air conditioning, though it may help some people recover from thermal stress in the short-term, does not account for issues like the access for marginalized populations, heat stress on agricultural productivity, or the increased carbon footprint of powering air conditioning with non-renewables (not to mention the fact that generating power at higher temperatures is less efficient). For example, with more people driven indoors, there will be a greater need for air conditioning. More air conditioning will mean a greater need for electricity. But with more heat, electricity production and transport become less efficient, so the cost of air conditioning will be higher (in actual costs and in carbon footprint), especially in rural areas that have low-quality electrical services. Though air conditioning might seem like a solution at first glance, such project-level thinking can miss the larger picture of the impacts heat will have.

Broaden our focus to plan and prepare for systemic impacts

Heat will impact different sectors in multiple ways that are difficult to predict. Furthermore, the stresses and failures that sectors experience will play out in unexpected ways at the collective level. To improve resilience, we need to broaden the dialogue by strengthening cross-sector communication and systems thinking.

The major challenge for systemic thinking is that sectorally defined, bureaucratic structures reduce resilience due to communication failures across what are referred to as “sector silos”. Over time, sectors gain specialized language and procedures that are honed to suit  their specific systems of interest, a fact that undermines the ability to communicate and coordinate properly across sector barriers. Though ultimately it would be ideal for everyone working within a larger system, say a city, to see the city system as a whole and see how changes in one sector affect the whole, current governance and incentive structures make that a difficult ideal to attain. Thus, there is a need to retrofit the governance structures and mindsets we have.

Through their work, the Institute for Social and Environmental Transition (ISET-I) and its partner organizations like Institute for Social and Environmental Transition (ISET-N) have showed that the Shared Learning Dialogue (SLD) process plays a valuable role in helping to open the channels of communication across sector silos.[2] In the case of heat, for example, SLDs could strengthen coordination between key stakeholders by connecting them around a shared resource like energy or water and exploring how their current understandings and assumptions about the availability and regularity of that resource might be changed in a hotter world. In terms of benefits to stakeholders, the outputs and outcomes of SLDs help improve planning and actions. In terms of benefits to resilience, SLDs open dialogue across sectors and provide a platform for a common language and understanding of a shared resource.

Systems of transnational governance need help

Just as working across sectors is necessary, there is a need to improve avenues for international dialogue in order to make transnational resource governance more effective. Heat will have wide-reaching impacts—increased migration, disease and changing ecosystems, for example—that no national border will be able to contain. Transnational cooperative organizations working at multiple scales, from local to transboundary, and in various sectors need to make a greater effort to use their agency to improve regional environmental and natural resource governance. Transforming the focus of these organizations to have a broader purview is a slow process, however, and one which is not keeping pace with the needs that will accompany rising temperatures.

City with enhanced natural ecosystem (Schematic):  A low cost systemic step to a resilient future

(Source; ISET-Nepal, sketch by late Surendra Pradhan)

In South Asia, organizations that operate at a regional scale also help with governance challenges. There are a number of organizations within and outside the region working together to promote cross-border dialogue. Quasi-governmental transnational organizations and international NGOs are part of current efforts to work transnationally, from the community scale to the river basin scale, to address systemic issues. For example, the climate resilience framework (CRF) is a tool that has been used across national borders to introduce systems-thinking into preparation, planning and decision-making[3]. These organizations and tools are just the starting point for tackling heat issues across borders.


Heat is an impending disaster for the 400 million people who live in the Ganges River Basin. Increasing periods of high heat without breaks will impact people across multiple systems, from livelihoods to health. Such an impact could lead to internal and international migration on a scale as yet never seen. Developing a solution to this challenge will begin by understanding the issue: what multiple systems stresses and failures will mean from the local to the transnational scale. The current structures of governance lag behind this challenge though there are some seeds of potential transformative change. The most pressing steps are is to hold supportive dialogues across sectors and scales and to embark upon the widespread adoption of system stewards who promote resilient outcomes.


[1] Projecting the Likely Rise of Future Heat Impacts Under Climate Change for Selected Urban Locations in South and Southeast Asia.

[2] Da Nang and Quang Nam, Vietnam: Trans-Boundary River Basin Management in Central Vietnam (Policy Brief)

[3] See Tyler and Moench (2012).

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