Coping with heatwave: How Odisha villages use natural measures

Concretisation and extreme heat have rendered traditional cooling methods ineffective

By Priya Ranjan Sahu
Published: Wednesday 04 May 2022

Heatwaves that have swept parts of the country have made life difficult, especially for people in the villages who cannot afford air conditioning. Traditional cooling mechanisms have either vanished due to concretisation or become ineffective due to unprecedented heat.

In Odisha, where the mercury touched 45 degrees Celsius in places, villagers are making changes to their daily routine or using natural solutions to find respite.

Jayanti Naik from Bhatli, a forested village in Odisha’s Sambalpur district, wakes up at around 4.30 am and goes to the forest to collect kendu leaves, a minor forest produce. She tries to come back by 9.30 am before the sun starts scorching the grounds.

Naik and other tribal women like her used to stay much longer in the forest to collect the leaves but the unbearable heat this year forced them to come back early. “We carry water bottles, still get tired by the time we return home,” said Naik.

The women sit under a shady tree to bundle the leaves and take to the forest department’s selling centre in the evening, she said.

Odisha, especially its western districts, has been reeling under intense heat spells from the beginning of April. Balangir, Titlagarh and Boudh districts recorded maximum temperatures of 45°C on April 30, 2022, while nine other places recorded 44°C, according to the India Meteorological Department (IMD). 

On April 25, at least 27 of IMD’s total 37 stations in the state recorded a maximum temperature of 40°C, with eight stations recording a maximum temperature of 43°C.

Vanishing traditions

Village homes would earlier be made of mud, with baked clay tiles or paddy straws as roofs. Those houses were eco-friendly and relatively cooler even during summer.

In recent years, most such traditional houses have been replaced by the one-room concrete houses given to villagers under government schemes. The concrete match-box houses radiate heat during the summer.

Besides, the concrete village roads, also built under government schemes, have added to the heat.

“Many people in our village have spread paddy straw or palm leaves over the concrete roofs to make the room cooler,” said Biraratha Jani of Simlipadar village in Boudh, where the maximum temperature recently crossed 45°C.

Paddy straws, however, are in short supply, especially in villages where modern farm machinery like paddy cutters have been introduced. Paddy straws are wasted on the fields or eaten by animals.       

The main refuge during scorching afternoon hours even today are large trees like banyan, mango and ‘baula’ (Mimusops elengi or spanish cherry) in most of the villages across Odisha. Villagers, mostly men, spend their afternoons under the shade of such trees, playing cards or dozing off.

Temples and community halls surrounded by trees and flanked by ponds also serve as resting places during the day. 

In Kudagotha and Similipadar villages, people have built a round-shaped ‘naam ghar’ (prayer hall), with the roof and all sides covered with palm leaves. It is fitted with a water cooler and water pots and the villagers are spending most of their time in this space.

Many villages, however, do not have much tree cover left and people have no option but to stay indoors in small concrete houses that radiate heat. They only consume water and ‘pakhal’ (watery rice) to counter heat.

Biraratha Jani said that few villagers in their villages have started building separate mud houses near their cropland to spend the afternoon in them. 

On the other hand, big villages having larger populations have different sets of problems.

Laida in Sambalpur district is one of the biggest revenue villages of Odisha with a population of around 4,000. The village, which may be called a semi-urban area, has mostly cement houses; only 20 per cent houses, mostly belonging to Dalits, are made of mud.

Like other villages, the shady trees are a big help for the people in Laida, while most houses have water coolers. Some houses have installed air conditioners. However, the heat generated from the nearby aluminium plant and some crusher units around the village is a cause of concern, according to villagers.

Irregular electricity supply and drying up of water sources have added to the summer woes of the people in villages. It is more visible in the villages in Balangir, which has been one of the hottest places in Odisha this summer. Many of the water sources are electricity dependent and they become useless due to irregular power supply.

The government has ordered the district administrations to supply water in tankers to water-stressed areas but they are not enough to meet the requirement, said villagers. In the water-stressed villages, women have an added job of walking longer distances to streams or rivulets to fetch water, vital for keeping them hydrated.

Natural shade reducing

The intensity of summer had been on the rise in the last several years but the mechanism available in villages to protect them from heat seemed to be shrinking, people in many villages complained. The natural barriers against heat like big, shady trees are under threat as well.

There used to be large mango groves in most villages some years ago, with 30-70 trees in each. The canopy of these trees created a cool atmosphere, even though temperatures outside shot past 40°C. But such groves are vanishing fast due to the creation of new croplands, road construction and other development works.

“With such a natural protective resource gone, life will be more miserable,” Ashok Pradhan, a farmer leader, said.

Such a scenario is quite evident from the situation of people living in villages near mining areas. People of Tilia and Junanimunda villages in Jharsuguda district are surrounded by coal mines and bereft of tree cover and proper water sources. Most of the houses have tin or asbestos roofs.

It feels like we are boiling in a furnace. We have no way of getting out,” said Junaimunda resident Ishan Munda.   

Traditional coping mechanisms of the people are gradually failing due to the unprecedented increase in heat wave and heat stress conditions, fuelled by climate change and local drivers, environmentalist Ranjan Panda said. 

People are suffering a lot due to growing concrete infrastructures at the cost of vegetation covers, wetlands and other open spaces.

“Most of the measures are short-term and not very beneficial for the poor and marginalised communities,” Panda said. Long-term heat mitigation plans need to incorporate ecosystem restoration actions, strengthened public health infrastructure at the grassroots level, he added.

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