Weather extremes

Lack of basic facilities, sweltering heat, and climatic unpreparedness have made survival a challenge in Jacobabad

Weather extremes


or Allah Dino, a daily-wage worker, it is hard to beat the sweltering heat in Jacobabad. In the summer of 2018, he and his ailing father suffered a heat stroke.

So, with the onset of summer every year, Allah Dino and his family collect their essential household items and move to the port city of Karachi. By September-October, they return to their home as the mercury drops. This has become a routine for Allah Dino and scores of other families.

For residents of Jacobabad, one of the hottest places on earth, summers are always harsh. They have to live in sweltering heat with temperatures scaling up to a level that the human body cannot bear. In May last year, the temperature hit 51 degrees Celsius, making it the highest recorded temperature.

The lack of basic amenities like an uninterrupted supply of electricity, clean drinking water and weather-resistant housing make life more difficult for the more than one million population of the city. While there is no official data available, it is believed that 25 to 30 percent of the population temporarily migrates to Karachi, Quetta and other cities during the summer to escape the scorching heat.

Environmentalists believe that global warming has made the severe heat wave that smothered much of Pakistan and India this spring, hotter and more likely to occur.

In Pakistan, the heat, previously, would be at its peak in June and July. However, it has come in March this year and has continued in some areas where little relief is expected until monsoon rains arrive. The country has so far witnessed its hottest summer in April 2022, breaking the 61-year record.

In Jacobabad, life is dominated by attempts to find ways to cope with the blistering heat. Blackouts for 12 to 18 hours daily are common. Some of the villages don’t even have access to electricity. Most of the residents, who subsist on low incomes, cannot afford to install air-conditioning and power alternatives, such as Chinese-made solar power batteries and cheaper chargeable fans, to combat the heat by keeping their homes cool.

The cost of a solar panel to run two fans and a bulb is $70 to $80, while the average monthly income of a labourer in Jacobabad is less than $75. “Should I purchase a solar power battery or food for my family?” asks Noor Muhammad, 43, a farmer who lives in a village on Jacobabad’s outskirts. His house, made of mud, lacks electricity. Several women and children are compelled to live in misery in unbearable heat.

The water crisis is also severe. Donkey carts carrying water tanks are a common sight on roads and in streets. People are forced to buy five small blue plastic jerrycans of water for Rs 300.

Outdoor workers, particularly farmers and the socio-economically disadvantaged, suffer the most during a heatwave. Agriculture, particularly rice farming, drives the local economy. Rice seedlings are grown in nurseries in early May and transplanted from nurseries into the fields in June or early July, keeping farmworkers busy during the hottest time of the year.

“It is really hard to work in the excessive heat, but we have to; we don’t have a choice,” says Hussain.

People fainting in the streets because of severe heat are a common sight. Roads wear a deserted look from 1pm to 5pm as the increase in temperature dissuades people from stepping out of their houses. People who are outdoors walk or drive motorcycles while covering themselves with a piece of cloth to protect from heat. Tents are set up across the region selling traditional remedies, like sugarcane juice and a supposedly cooling tonic made from almonds, rose-flavoured syrup and iced water.

Weather extremes

Environmentalists believe that global warming has made the severe heat wave that smothered much of Pakistan and India this spring hotter and more likely to occur.

A heatstroke centre, with air-conditioning and a dedicated media team with only four beds, was set up at the district’s main state-run hospital. During a recent visit, there was no electricity at the centre.

“High temperatures also pose a risk to the body,” says a medical officer working at a heatstroke centre. “Extreme temperatures result in stress to the body, and because of it, skin and heat-related diseases are common in the district.”

The district is named after Brig-Gen John Jacob, who was sent by the British Empire to the region some 185 years ago to crack down on the rebel tribes and bandits. In June 1838, Jacob, along with 40 soldiers, was marching to Khangarh, the town which was later renamed after him. A decade later, the heat had killed a lieutenant and seven soldiers on the first of the ten miles.

“The wind appears like a blast from the furnace, and this is even midnight,” Jacob writes, saying that the temperature during that day rose to 140 degrees Fahrenheit. On one day, it stood at 143 degrees Fahrenheit.

Accepting the challenging task of coping with the hostile climate of the region, Jacob introduced the canal irrigation system and supplied fresh river water through canals across the city to the residents to beat the heat in the summers. Today, the canals have run dry and are full of garbage.

Jacobabad was hit by severe floods in 2010 that forced 95 percent of the population to flee, while 170 people died, and over 156,000 homes and the water infrastructure of the city were badly damaged.

The district lacks the green spaces needed to help absorb the blistering summer heat. There has been significant deforestation in recent years. While official data on Jacobabad is not available, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF-Pakistan) estimates only 5.4 percent of Pakistan’s land to be under forest cover, mainly because of poor management, illegal logging, natural disasters and overgrazing.

An environment researcher, Nasir Ali Panhwar, says that most of the trees that used to shade Jacobabad have been chopped, sold or burned for domestic use. “Besides cutting down trees for new housing schemes, there has been unplanned urbanisation.”

South Asia has always been hot, the monsoons always drenching; and it is far from being alone in contending with new weather patterns. But this region, with nearly a quarter of the world’s population, is experiencing climatic extremes, from untimely heavy rain and floods to scorching temperatures and extended heat waves.

March or April 2013 was the hottest month in Pakistan in 122 years of record-keeping, the rainfall was 60 to 70 percent below the norm, scientists say.

The Global Climate Risk Index 2021, an annual ranking from research group Germanwatch, puts Pakistan among the 10 countries most affected by climate change, with its northern glaciers melting and population surging along with fast diminishing water supplies.

“Pakistan has been experiencing early summers and rising temperatures in the relatively moderate months of the year due to climate change,” says Dr Zulfiqar A Bhutta, head of the Institute for Global Health and Development at the Aga Khan University.

“Rise in temperature, floods, water scarcity, insufficient rainfall, sandstorms and water-borne diseases are all linked to climate change,” adds Dr Bhutta. “Pakistan needs to improve its climate change mitigation immediately,“ he suggests.

In 2012, the Pakistani government set up a climate change ministry and developed a national climate change policy. “But on the ground, there is no implementation. In fact, the government has not really prioritised the development of long-term adaptation policies for national, provincial and district-level actions,” says Panhwar, “Climate change is a much deeper and broader issue than some policymakers realise.”

For the past few years, the rise of temperature in Jacobabad has been getting international media attention. “But for the government in the country and the province, it is a seasonal problem,” says GM Soomro, a lawyer based in Jacobabad. “They make some announcements and then forget those until the next year,” adds the lawyer.

The writer is a Hyderabad-based journalist. For over a decade, he has been writing on climate change, wildlife and marginalised communities

Weather extremes