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August 16, 2016

Dealing with heatwaves

In the summer of 2015, Pakistan faced a deadly heatwave. Temperatures soared to more than 43 degrees celsius accompanied by air depression over the Arabian Sea, which blocked the sea breeze to Karachi. The situation was further exacerbated by clear skies, making the air warmer. The heatwave killed 1,271 people in Karachi and hospitalised many more.

According to the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO), “A heatwave occurs when the daily maximum temperature of more than five consecutive days exceeds the average maximum temperature by 5 degrees Celsius.”

A technical report on the Karachi heatwave of June 2015, prepared by the Ministry of Climate Change highlighted: “On the heat index scale, during this (heatwave) event in Karachi, the maximum temperature recorded was 44.8 C but the heat index was around 66 C on the peak heatwave day of 20th June, 2015. There was low air pressure, and wind speed and very high humidity. The main causes of deaths identified were heatstroke and dehydration.”

It is important to note that the situation was further severed due to the Urban Heat Island (UHI) effect. This is a phenomenon whereby the concentration of concrete structures and emissions from human-led activities leads to the condensation of slightly warmer air over urbanised areas, when compared to surrounding rural areas. The UHI effect occurs in pockets impacting areas with less green spaces and places of low socioeconomic status such as slums. This contributed greatly to the 2015 heatwave in Karachi.

In May 2010, the Indian city of Ahmedabad suffered from a deadly heatwave which killed 1,344 people. This paved the way for the first Heat Action Plan by the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation (AMC). It was initiated with the support of the Climate Development Knowledge Network (CDKN), and public health and policy experts at the Indian Institute of Public Health, Gandhinagar; Public Health Foundation of India; Natural Resources Defense Council; and Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

During phase 1 of the Heat Action Plan, an evidence base was established to explore the cause of deaths due to heatwave, whereas in phase 2 awareness promotion was given particular attention. Alert levels were created to warn people beforehand about the heat intensity so that they could take appropriate measures.

LEAD Pakistan and CDKN have undertaken a project in Pakistan to facilitate stakeholders in developing the heatwave management plan in Karachi. The project includes initiating a process at the local level that will help the development of the heatwave management plan, in coordination with and through the consensus of all stakeholders.

Two consultative workshops were held last year to facilitate heatwave management in Karachi, by helping stakeholders develop a heatwave management plan. The workshops aimed to improve coordination and planning for heatwave management among various government departments and NGOs.

According to Bilal Khalid, Focal Person, CDKN Pakistan Country Programme at LEAD Pakistan, “The nature of heatwave events makes them hard to detect which leads to large scale causalities before the government can react. The traditional disaster response model, based on a reactive, knee jerk response, is incompatible for managing heatwaves. There is a need to develop a proactive heatwave management plan that includes an early warning system and clear protocols for heatwave response.

“Such a plan will also require close coordination between the various institutions, since no government department can single-handedly tackle the challenge. Lastly there is need for capacity-building and awareness-raising of all concerned stakeholders to sensitise them about the risks and mitigations strategies for responding to heatwaves.”

However, this year the UHI phenomenon did not severely impact Karachi or parts of Sindh; and in order to avoid any possible heatwave event, the Pakistan Meteorological Department (PMD) was quite proactive in timely issuing heatwave warning alerts.

According to Dr Ghulam Rasool, DG, PMD, the “‘PMD established Heatwave Early Warning Centres in Karachi which operated round the clock. Heatwave warnings were issued three days in advance and shared with all the local stakeholders. Also, warnings were shared on an hourly basis.

“PMD and K-Electric also inked an agreement to coordinate closely in awareness raising campaigns and risk reduction. PMD informed K-Electric about the heatwaves three days in advance and then on daily and hourly basis, so that load shedding was not done when there were chances of heatwave. This coordination worked well during the heatwave of 22-26 April 2016.”

Ajay Kumar of the Provincial Disaster Management Authority (PDMA) Sindh says: “The heatwave management plan is a workable solution but it should be expanded beyond Karachi, to the entire province. Last year, heatwave not just killed people in Karachi but also in various parts of Sindh. Beyond any doubt, it’s an emergency and disaster situation, therefore should be the ownership of PDMA Sindh.’

However, Ajay Kumar suggests that PDMA Sindh should get views from all stakeholders once again before finalising the management plan. Bilal Khalid also supports the idea: “The heatwave management plan should be replicated to other cities of Pakistan aswell. However these plans should be sensitive to the local geography climate and socioeconomic conditions.”

Owing to the increasing impacts of climate change, heatwaves are bound to occur more frequently and it is important to be well equipped to deal with them. In order to effectively deal with the issue in future, CDKN is working to develop the next phase of their project, which will involve the development of a heatwave management plan for Karachi.

It will eventually support Karachi in mitigating extreme heat impacts, by helping identify context-appropriate heat management and mitigation strategies along with institutional frameworks to enable effective implementation.

Dealing with heatwaves is critical, as the most marginalised communities are the ones most affected from it, and they are usually caught unaware.

To effectively address the problem, it is imperative for everyone – government, private sector, civil society, media and layman – to sit together and think of innovative ways to cope with it. That’s the only solution we have, and we must not waste any more time.

The writer is a freelance contributor.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @SyedMAbubakar