Extreme heat is taking its toll on students and institutions

Extreme climatic events such as heatwaves and flash floods have resulted in major disruptions and challenges for universities across Africa. Extreme heat events, due to global warming, have been associated with low student turnout, low academic performance and health risks for academic staff and students.

However, there is a lack of data and scientific studies to track the impact and effect of heat waves in the region.

The Global Disaster Preparedness Center of the American Red Cross has noted that, despite the growing adverse impacts of extreme heat, there are gaps in global awareness, risk analysis and action to combat heat risks.

A group of researchers from South African universities indicated in a report ‘Heatwaves in the future warmer climate of South Africa’ that a lack of research on extreme weather events such as heatwaves resulted in limited climate change adaptation strategies at policy-making level.

More research needed

In an interview with University World News, Dr Patience Chadambuka, a climate researcher and lecturer in the community studies department at Midlands State University in Zimbabwe, spoke about the importance of research into extreme heat events and their impact on educational institutions.

She also noted that the lack of data on the impact of heat events on higher education institutions in the region was a result of limited funding at African universities.

Chadambuka recently completed a report on identifying perceptions of climate-induced heat among the vulnerable population in Zimbabwe’s heatwave-prone Beitbridge district with funding support from the Global Disaster Preparedness Center.

“The trends we have observed as researchers over the years show that there is usually a drop in students’ attendance in lectures during heatwaves compared to other seasons such as winter. Our infrastructure makes it difficult for us to conduct our teaching and learning during extreme heat events,” she said.

“There is also a lack of facilities such as air conditioners to help with cooling. We rely mostly on [open] windows, but this is not very effective, considering the high numbers of students at our universities.”

“There is a need to acknowledge that extreme heat is a challenge at policymaking levels, which will open up different avenues for various players, including academia, to develop strategies and recommendations.

“One such recommendation is the need to raise awareness on the causes, impacts and on how to adapt to extreme heat in communities,” said Chadambuka.

Establishment of ‘microclimates’

In West Africa, universities have been facing severe challenges due to climate change-induced heatwaves, with some of the highest recorded temperatures exceeding 40 degrees Celsius.

According to Dr N’Da Kouadio Christophe, a researcher and assistant lecturer of physical geography at the Institute of Tropical Geography, Félix Houphouët-Boigny University in Côte d’Ivoire, for over a decade, the country has been experiencing extreme heat episodes and heat waves. Heatwaves are said to be persistent from February to April, particularly in the district of Abidjan.

Such high temperatures not only affected the mobility of students, teaching and administrative staff at Abidjan universities but also posed challenges within the physical learning environment leading to high rates of absenteeism.

“Poor ventilation and malfunctioning infrastructure (air conditioners and other equipment) have negatively affected students and teachers in class. Field research during these scorching periods is also a big challenge for students who are sensitive to high heat, exposing them to a number of illnesses such as heat cramps, heat exhaustion (or heat shock), dehydration and, most seriously, heat stroke,” he stated.

He also added that the university had been making efforts to develop adaptive measures through the establishment of ‘microclimates’ (areas where the climate deviates from the surrounding climate) within the university and raising awareness on the impacts of heatwaves.

“Over the past few years, reforestation actions have been carried out within the Felix Houphouët-Boigny University by several NGOs and students, in particular those from the department of geography, to maintain an ecological corridor capable of limiting heatwaves and producing comfort and shelter for students before and after class,” he said.

He added that the academic institution, through the climate research team, had completed several projects which addressed issues around variability of heat episodes on an inter-annual scale. Further research aimed to identify the impact of heatwaves on the populace and adaptation measures.

“Awareness sessions on climate change, adaptation and mitigation measures are organised on campuses for students. In the same vein, an association of climatologists and students from all disciplines is being created at Félix Houphouët-Boigny University coordinated by our department. The association, which is called ‘Climate Students Côte d’Ivoire’, will continue its work on all campuses in the country,” he stated.

Research on extreme heat

In a bid to increase knowledge on heatwaves in communities in low- and middle-income countries, the Global Disaster Preparedness Center, the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Center and the Global Heat Health Information Network launched a research grant programme in 2022.

The objectives of the research programme was to expand awareness and study heatwaves by accessing university-level researchers to build on technical expertise and to develop basic knowledge and tools to enable civic organisations, local authorities and community leaders to prepare and respond to extreme heat events.

The studies focused on identifying local heat thresholds and triggers, analysing public perceptions towards heat and identifying strategies to influence policy and action towards risks of extreme heat.

The Global Disaster Preparedness Center recently hosted a workshop under the theme ‘Extreme heat impacts and actions: learn from local researchers’.

Timothy Chambers, an atmospheric science researcher at the University of Cape Town, shared his findings on a study themed, ‘Towards livable cities: Extreme heat distribution in South African cities’.

This study maps and models the temperature distributions in 10 hot South African cities at a city-level scale with the aim of identifying and prioritising those at highest risk. A Weather Research and Forecasting Model was implemented to test potential cooling scenarios.

Dr Bethwel Mutai, a lecturer at the department of earth and climate sciences at the University of Nairobi in Kenya, also made a presentation on a study themed, ‘Temporal distribution of heatwave events and its concomitant effect on human health’.

This research also highlighted how the surge in extreme heat events has led to dramatic impacts on human health and communities, while assessing the potential uncertainties encountered in the process of heatwave monitoring in the region.