Temperatures in Gujarat, a state in west India, have increased by nearly 3°C over the last three decades due to climate change. While both urban and rural areas are experiencing record temperatures, city dwellers in low-income neighborhoods are most impacted, with the extreme heat also compounding other problems such as poor air quality. 

Women are most at risk from the extreme heat, says Bijal Brahmbhatt, Director at Mahila Housing Trust (MHT):

“Heat in India is a given. But now with climate change, it is hotter than ever. Women spend more time at home. They use their house as their workplace, their go down, their storehouse and so cooling is essential to enable them to earn a living.”

The Ahmedabad-based NGO, which has been supporting women across India since 1994, empowers women to tackle heat through a range of initiatives, adds Bijal: “We work with the Community Action Groups (CAGs), technologists, scientists, Government, adapt different micro-credit financial mechanisms because conventional solutions like air conditioners are expensive and other solutions are difficult to implement for cooling these communities.”

As many local people attribute the rising temperatures to the will of God, the organization’s work begins with demystifying climate change, using jargon-free language during outreach meetings and trainings to raise awareness about the simple steps and actions that people can take to adapt to the extreme heat. Getting cool roofs with solar reflective paint is one such example, and the improvement in thermal comfort is easy for the households to see for themselves using   thermometers. 

“With rising heat levels, the indoor temperature of my home increased, making it uncomfortable to live in,” explains Sarojben Karanbahadur Singh, a resident from Hariom Nagur, Surat. “Mahila Housing Trust helped me paint my roof with white solar reflective paint, which has significantly improved the thermal comfort inside my home.”

Whether it is helping to improve thermal comfort or other aspects of MHT’s work, such as addressing structural inequalities, the organization’s long-standing presence in local communities ensures it is sensitive to informal citizens’ hopes, demands and aspirations. Locally led adaptation solutions are led by Community Based Organizations (CBOs) and Community Action Groups (CAGs), which MHT helped to facilitate across thousands of informal settlements. Together the CBOs work in concert under an umbrella body called ‘Vikasini’, which is a city level federation of slum dwellers. 

This structure ensures that solutions are co-created, with MHT helping to fill gaps and provide further provision, such as through the creation of credit cooperatives. In addition, the structure mobilizes the women and empowers them by giving them a voice and influence at a household, community and city level. Demonstration of this ability to shape the urban development agenda can be seen in the reference to cool roofs in the Gujarat State Heat Action plan, which was a direct result of work done by community action groups at a local level and the upstream advocacy by Mahila Housing Trust. 

The cool roofs that have been co-created with the communities are a highly effective and popular solution to extreme heat, and include a range of options – from cost effective paints to the more sophisticated and aspirational modular roofs. The modular roofs resemble the concrete roofs favored by India’s middle classes, making them an attractive investment for the aspirational urban poor. Furthermore, the modular roofs can also be easily dismantled – something especially important for residents in informal settlements who have limited property rights and fear eviction. 

The MHT-established community groups meet on a regular basis, at least once a month. Each has a secretary and treasurer, with members receiving training on how best to decide on an agenda and log meeting minutes. While MHT continues to engage with the groups over time, decision making is devolved, and it is the groups that define their agendas and priorities, with the emphasis on creating agents of change and climate champions within their own communities. 

To date, MHT’s work on thermal comfort has reached over 54,000 households, which equates to approximately 260,000 people across the country. Much of the outreach work has been delivered by 13,000 trained climate resilient specialists, drawn from across informal settlements. Over 7,000 households have purchased climate resilience technological solutions, with 1,000 households accessing climate resilience loans.