Climatologists have warned this may just be a trailer of more such events to follow, bringing damage, death, and destruction in its wake
This year’s theme for the international World Population Day (falling on July 11) is Vulnerable Populations in Emergencies and seems to highlight perfectly the human tragedy Pakistan has been facing repeatedly, floods, drought and the latest -- last month’s monstrous heatwave.
With the death toll due to the heatwave having crossed 1,200 with about 40,000 people having suffered heatstroke and heat exhaustion since the day Ramzan began on June 19, Karachi, the city of 20 million, is slowly getting back on its feet.
With temperatures having gone down from the 45 degrees centigrade (which felt like 50 due to the heat island effect), many have heaved a sigh of relief. The worst seems to be over.
Or so for now…
But climatologists have warned this may just be a trailer of more such events to follow, bringing damage, death, and destruction in its wake. They say with the world failing miserably in cutting down carbon emissions, dramatic environmental changes will result in frequent floods, erratic rainfall, cyclones, wildfires, glacial lake outbursts and droughts.
"Science is beginning to see the patterns in the frequency and ferocity of extreme events around the world," says Dr Adil Najam, a Pakistani scholar who is dean of the Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University. "We are beginning to realise that when climate change exacerbates it can bring not only localised shocks, but also global implications. And when these become repeated and more frequent can cripple communities and have knock-on impacts elsewhere," he explains.
Physicist, Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy, is not too surprised at Karachi’s situation. Extreme heat and cold, just like rain and drought, are natural phenomena, he says, which are only "partially predictable even with the best science" and have been occurring for hundreds of centuries.
The same is endorsed by Kanwal Saqib, research officer at International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), in Islamabad. "These climatic changes have been taking place since the creation of earth and there are many studies on this as well that prove them," she says.
To some degree, it is man’s own doing. Saqib points to extraction of fossil fuel which led to industrialisation and mechanisation and how this, in turn, led to increased demand for raw material. This put pressure on agriculture, indiscriminate use of fertiliser and pesticides, need for more land (leading to deforestation) and extensive use of groundwater (which has now almost depleted).
According to Najam, who was among the lead authors of the third and fourth assessment reports of the United Nations’ IPCC, nature, through these weather furies, was sending a message.
"It’s reminding us of just how dependent we, as a species, remain on nature and its services. Despite all of our technological advances and global affluence, each time a natural calamity hits it shows us just how helpless we become in the face of nature’s wrath," he says.
Unfortunately, says Najam, we seem to be ignoring the alarm bells. "Nature is saying, don’t mess with me; respect my limits but human arrogance continues to ignore that message," he says and warns, "We will do so at our own cost."
Prepare and plan
Since there is no getting away with these climate anomalies, Professor Noman Ahmed, head of the department of architecture at Karachi’s NED University, says managing the risks of climate-related disasters should be the next prudent step.
According to him, the way the development of the city is taking place needs to be seriously revisited. "By all means, build high rises but study the major corridors of wind before doing it. Today, many such buildings along the coast are blocking the sea breeze from reaching the inner city with complete disregard for the principles of town planning."
At the same time, he says, people do not pay attention to design and construction. "Today, houses are not designed to get rid of daytime heat and the material used does not help either. Cement is not environmentally friendly, so it can be used for the structure but replaced by weather-friendly material. "I think choona[lime] is great. It is available in abundance and it’s cheap," points out Ahmed.
He says green belts and parks are encroached upon. "These must be seized back from the land mafia and vegetation and trees planted there on a war footing." Ahmed says the Karachi University has already prepared an inventory of indigenous trees and plants that can be grown to mitigate the affects of heat.
And most importantly, says Ahmed, the number of carbon spewing vehicles plying on the roads need to be brought down. "That can only happen if we establish a public transport system."
Concurring with Ahmed, Hoodbhoy says, "Because of airconditioning and cars, mega cities like Karachi have become simmering islands of heat that are unpleasant for all but lethal for the poor and less healthy." He says the solution lay in having open places like parks, massive tree plantation and severe restrictions on tree cutting, properly ventilated apartments, and widespread use of rooftop-generated solar electricity."
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Fortunately for Karachi, a group of concerned citizens have come together under the banner HaraBhara Karachi to take steps to ensure the city never has to witness the kind of tragedy it did.
"We are trying to involve various stakeholders, like the Pakistan Council of Architects and Town Planners (PCATP), the Institute of Architects, Pakistan (IAP), Shehri-Citizens for a Better Environment, Pursukoon Karachi, The Pakistan Engineering Council, etc, to make Karachi a green city," says Nighat Mir, who along with Durriya Kazi, is spearheading the initiative.
They want to emphasise on smarter buildings, better urban planning, designated green areas, cataloging existing greenery and parks in various communities and protecting them from being cut down as has been done with impunity in the past.
In addition, they want to work to get laws passed that will make tree cutting a serious crime, punishable with jail terms and heavy fines. "We want to take the various cantonments, housing societies, and the local government on board and we want to create a citizens tree police to report crime against felling of trees," says Mir. They also want to twin with cities which face similar problems and share experiences.
And if steps are not taken now, warns Ali Tauqeer Sheikh, Asia Director for Climate and Development Knowledge Network (CDKN): "The cost of inaction will be huge."
Referring to the Karachi heatwave, he says heat-related deaths are preventable and the methods easy. He should know, he was part of group that devised a heat health plan for Ahmedabad back in 2013, which is now in its second phase. It has received global recognition and was selected for the Munich Re Risk Award 2015, which was among the top 20 projects presented at the World Conference for Disaster Risk Reduction in Sendai, Japan, earlier this year in March.
Soon after the heatwave in May, in India that killed over 2,500 people, the CDKN director wrote to the NDMA, offering to help it in replicating Ahmedabad’s heat plan for cities in Pakistan. In the letter, Sheikh suggested that the "key learning from the Ahmedabad project can be translated into urban design and development projects in Pakistan where the mercury rises up to 53.5 degrees Celsius".
"We must have written to over two dozen different sections and line departments both at the federal and provincial level but save for one -- Punjab’s Urban Unit -- there was absolutely no response from anyone," Sheikh laments.
After the heatwave mortality in Karachi, the CDKN wrote to the Ministry of Climate Change. The latter is now "seriously" considering what can be done in this regard, TNS learnt from a source in the ministry.
On the next page: Local solutions -- Ahmedabad’s heat health action plan
Local solutions: Ahmedabad’s heat health action plan
After a heatwave in the Indian city of Ahmedabad killed over 1,300 people in 2010, the city government decided it needed to do something.
Over the next three years and much detailed research later, the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation (AMC) came up with a full-fledged Heat Health Action Plan (HHAP), also the first one in South Asia. By 2013, it was all set to be implemented. The initiative, which has shown remarkable results (there were only seven casualties in Ahmedabad this year compared to 1,300 in 2010) was actively supported by the Climate and Development Knowledge Network (CDKN).
The HHAP’s four-pronged strategy is something any city can replicate. It includes educating the public about heat-related illnesses and the preventive measures it can take. The city administration launched campaigns through billboards, handouts, and announcements on radio and television on basic preparedness.
An early-warning system with actions and responsibilities for various governmental agencies -- who will do what, when, and how -- was also in the plan as was training of health care professionals -- both from public and private institutions to respond rapidly to the situation and adapting the physical plan of the city to cope with heat.
Building temporary shelters, making water available and mapping high-risk areas were the immediate actions but for longer term, developing building codes that allow buildings and home to remain cool were also put in the plan.
So, for example, ambulances are strategically placed, hospitals receive warnings when extreme temperatures are forecast so that they can keep extra ice packs at hand. The city has installed 1,100 drinking water stations.
Over 40 mayors at South Asia Cities Summit in New Delhi, earlier this year, organised by UN Habitat, Cities Network Campaign, and Climate and Development Knowledge Network (CDKN), showed interest in Ahmedabad’s heatwave plan.
The session, Scaling up Successful Heat Action Plan from Ahmedabad to other parts of India concluded that smart cities are heatwave-safe cities. A similar project is being planned for the Indian city of Nagpur where heatwaves have become frequent in recent years with more requests coming from others.