People cool off in water fountains in Nice during a heat wave alert in France in August 2018. Photo by: REUTERS / Eric Gaillard

UNITED NATIONS — The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies released the first set of international guidelines on heat waves for cities on Tuesday, issuing an urgent call for cities to prepare for the increasingly common “silent killers.”

“Heat waves are one of the deadliest natural hazards facing humanity, and the threat they pose will only become more serious and more widespread as the climate crisis continues,” said IFRC President Francesco Rocca, during a media briefing at U.N. headquarters media on Tuesday.

“Heat waves are silent killers, because they take the lives of people who are already vulnerable.”

— Francesco Rocca, president, IFRC

“However, the good news is that heat waves are also predictable and preventable. The actions that authorities can take to save lives and significantly reduce suffering are simple and affordable.”

The new “Heatwave Guide for Cities” — developed with more than 25 partners, including individual cities, universities, and the U.S. Agency for International Development — presents cities with practical steps to prepare for the inevitability of heat waves. They also aim to help prevent illness and death of the most vulnerable people, including elderly people and young children. These steps can range from conducting public awareness campaigns to developing an early warning system for heat waves.  

“Anyone should be able to pick it up and use it. The very first step I would recommend is to start gathering a key set of partners in the city who can help work through the different recommendations, to start addressing what already exists, what are the gaps, and how people can work together,” Julie Arrighi, an author of the guidelines and climate change expert at the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre, told Devex in an interview.

IFRC issued the guidelines on the sidelines of the U.N. high-level political forum, which this year is spotlighting progress on climate action, among other Sustainable Development Goals.

Some cities, such as South Africa’s Cape Town, are already doing work on heat waves, in the form of building spray parks in lower-income areas, for example. But other cities are new to the topic, according to Arrighi.

“In some parts of the world that has historically had heat risk, you see more planning. After the European heat wave of 2003, when tens of thousands of people died, now you see more action plans. The challenge is for locations that have not had a heat wave risk,” Arrighi said. “The guidelines are meant to help those cities prepare so they are not caught off guard when that first heat wave might happen and hopefully we can help prevent some of those deaths.”

“When cities have plans already, there could still be improvements that should be made, because heat waves could be getting more intense and frequent,” Arrighi said.

Researchers from the World Weather Attribution collaboration, which includes the Red Cross Climate Centre, have found that the risk of heat wave episodes like the recent one in France in June was five times greater because of climate change.

Cities, in particular, are uniquely vulnerable to heat waves because of the “urban heat island effect,” in which cement and other materials trap heat. As the definition of heat waves can vary from place to place, heat patterns within cities themselves also differ. Informal settlements, for example, can have higher temperatures than the wider city itself, Arrighi said.

Lower-income people can be especially vulnerable to heat waves, but the risks can be widely felt by at-risk people in high-income countries, as well.

“Heat waves are silent killers, because they take the lives of people who are already vulnerable,” Rocca said.

The guidelines recommend that cities could identify at-risk populations and heat hotspots. City governments could also better prepare health workers for the likelihood of an imminent heat event, and set up free cooling stations — especially key for people who cannot rely on air conditioning at home.

Around 5 billion people live in regions where extreme heat can be predicted days or weeks in advance, according to the guidelines. And 17 of the 18 warmest years in the global temperature record have occurred since 2001.

Several serious heat waves have killed tens of thousands of people worldwide since 2001, according to IFRC. The 2003 European heat wave killed more than 70,000 people, and the 2015 heat wave in India killed over 2,500 people. These figures are likely underestimates, Rocca told reporters.

“This is one of the deadliest disasters facing humanity and the threat they pose will only become more serious as climate change continues,” Rocca said.  

About the author

  • Amy Lieberman

    Amy Lieberman is the U.N. Correspondent for Devex. She covers the United Nations and reports on global development and politics. Amy previously worked as a freelance reporter, covering the environment, human rights, immigration, and health across the U.S. and in more than 10 countries, including Colombia, Mexico, Nepal, and Cambodia. Her coverage has appeared in the Guardian, the Atlantic, Slate, and the Los Angeles Times. A native New Yorker, Amy received her master’s degree in politics and government from Columbia’s School of Journalism.