Tuesday November 28, 2023

Tackling heatwaves

May 25, 2018

For the past many days, Karachi has once again been facing the worst kind of heatwave, and reportedly dozens of precious human lives have been lost so far. Most of those who died were fasting due to the holy month of Ramazan. The situation has become increasingly critical due to electricity shortage.

The city was once known for its moderate weather. Geographically, Karachi is located along the coast and is supposed to have a relatively pleasant climate. However, it is indeed very tragic that over 60 people have reportedly died during the ongoing heatwave as temperature exceeded 40 degree Celsius. Ironically, government officials have denied any knowledge of the casualties. According to the director health Karachi, no heatstroke deaths have been reported at any hospital. Similarly, the spokesman of the Sindh Health Department claimed that all the medicines and necessary arrangements have been ensured at all hospitals. However, he admitted that local hospitals reported having received over 20 heatstroke patients, but all were released after medical treatment.

Such statements remind me of the deadliest heatwave the city faced in 2015 which resulted in the deaths of at least 1,200 people. It was mainly the elderly, sick and the homeless who died. Instead of taking the issue seriously, government officials kept shifting the responsibility from one department to the other. Three years have passed, but it seems that the government has still not learnt anything from past mistakes. Instead of taking concrete steps to tackle the crisis, our institutions are again busy in denying facts.

Heatwaves are a global phenomenon related to climate change. Internationally, the US and UK, Europe, Australia, India and many other countries also face this challenge. It is further expected that extreme heatwaves will become increasingly common across the globe in the near future. We need to make use of the international community’s experience of tackling this crisis.

The government must focus on preparing a proper action plan to prevent and handle a heatwave with the coordination of various departments, individuals, the media and the civil society. There is a dire need to run public awareness campaigns and issue heatwave alerts. We must recognise this phenomenon as a major health risk, and identify vulnerable communities. We must devise a strategy to protect shopkeepers, auto mechanics, taxi and rickshaw drivers, labourers, police officials and security guards, who are extremely vulnerable to heatwaves and its adverse impacts, such as dehydration and sun strokes.

Nobody can deny that forestation acts as a coolant. Trees which can serve as shades for buildings are helpful in decreasing the need to turn air conditioners on. Similarly, trees also decrease all kinds of air pollution and gas emissions. Unfortunately, Pakistan has the highest annual deforestation rate in the region, and according to media reports, the country’s forest cover is less than 2.5 percent of the total land.

International experts have time and again emphasised that at least 25 percent of Karachi’s area should be reserved for trees and plantation. But sadly, a large number of trees have been cut down in the metropolis to either make space for residential colonies or for security reasons.

The government must initiate massive plantation drives in the city on a priority basis, whereas citizens must also plant trees in their homes and gardens for the sake of protecting the environment. ‘One tree for one building’ must be made a compulsory rule. Those who live in apartments should consider the environmental benefits of having green roofs. According to my knowledge, a green roof can help keep the temperature down in a home by as much as six to eight degree Celsius. Trees and vegetation play a crucial role in lowering surface and air temperatures, only if they are planted in strategic locations around buildings and public places. The city government must consult international environmental experts to have surveys conducted in this regard. Being the largest city and the commercial hub of the country, Karachi needs more trees to balance its ecosystem.

Recently, a popular trend of planting date palms was witnessed in the city. But the most favourable trees to be planted in the city are those that consume less water and provide more shade. For this reason, and because of numerous other benefits, Neem trees should be planted. According to experts, temperature under the Neem’s shadow is around 10 degrees lower than the actual temperature, whereas it is only three to four degrees lower under shades of other trees. I believe that planting trees is the only workable solution that can save innocent lives. Gardening courses must also be included in the school curriculum so that our youth learns about the importance of plantation from an early age.

The writer is a member of the National Assembly and patron-in-chief of the Pakistan Hindu Council.

Twitter: @RVankwani