The heatwave effect

Since 2015, people in Karachi have become more aware about how to tackle heatwave

The heatwave effect

Heatwave has been a constant visitor to Karachi since 2015. Four years ago, the tyrant spell, exacerbated by electricity crisis and absence of preparedness, resulted in the killing of over a thousand people. It brutally exposed infrastructure deficits, inequalities and most importantly the normalisation of a discomforting reality that was no longer restricted to the low-income group alone.

While heatwaves are common, being driven up in frequency by climate change factors, in various parts of Sindh and Punjab, for Karachi a rise in temperature running up to over 40 degrees is a phenomenon happening only after 1979.

Since 2015, people in Karachi have become more aware about how to tackle heatwave. This is visible in preparedness measures, such as heatwave alerts, information exchange that encourages prevention and self-care, heatwave management centres established by the government, medical response, and special arrangements of drinking water for commuters at public places. The death toll, therefore, seems to be on a decline.

Following the 2015 heatwave, there was a 200 percent rise in the sale of air conditioners in Karachi. Retailers registered Rs 1.8bn sale of ACs in just the week following the June 2015 heatwave. This seems apt for Pakistan where consumption drives more than 60 percent of economic activities. It also underlines the inequalities that characterise Karachi and other urban centres coming in the grip of climate change. Middle and higher-income groups find protection in consumerism, while low-income and informal sectors are left struggling. A majority of those killed in 2010 were roadside vendors and homeless citizens.

Karachi’s repeated heatwave is described by the urban heat island effect in which human activity, built structures and vehicular movement all come together to trap heat in dense urban space, resulting in unusual rise in temperature.

Globally, urban areas contribute two thirds of all the greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere every year. Built structure is a significant source of emissions for the vast energy consumption they drive.

Unchecked expansion in Karachi has gone on unquestionably. A road network of 9500km, signifying as much concrete use -- a major emitter of CO2, an electricity consumer base of 2.5m up from 2.1m in just eight years (as indicated by K-Electric annual reports) indicating urban expansion and density, and a retail sector that represents the third largest consumer expenditure in the world, and around 1,000 new cars hitting the city’s roads every day; Karachi’s development is taking a path that is beyond climate remedial actions of the city or the provincial government.

So powerful is the construction industry that, while replacing agriculture land in the city’s biggest district of Gadap/Malir, it has sand-mined it to the point where water table has become inaccessible and wells all dried up.

Globally, cities are turning to a range of solutions to respond to heatwave and urban heat island effect. This is reflected in treating cities as a cohesive unit promoting behavioural change towards so-called greener practices. This may include making built structures efficient, discouraging individual vehicle use, promoting public transport, expanding green spaces and banning plastic.

Specific measures, such as recognition for waste pickers in Brazil for their contribution to the "green economy" are steps that indicate that cities are looking at inclusive answers to respond to climate change.

In terms of Karachi, if one follows the "put your money where your mouth is" proverb, a look at the provincial Annual Development Plan and KMC budget indicates no appreciation of the city’s downward spiral into a temperature trap that has been acutely impacting citizens, productivity and resources.

The seven items outlined on the issue of environment in the Annual Development Plan of Sindh Province in 2017-18 have no mention of structural or non-structural response to temperature rise in Karachi (Last year, a group of experts proposed white washing walls in informal settlements sponsored by the government, to reduce heat effect). The KMC budget likewise, apart from parks and horticulture, has nothing heat-wave specific for Karachi.

Globally, on structural level, the discourse on downscaling urbanisation - and repopulating rural areas -- is picking pace, questioning the logic of cities’ expansion as a measure of a country’s growth. Another theme "de-growth" advocates high consuming developed nations to scale down resource use, energy demand and emissions and improve people’s well-being simultaneously. The goal calls for prioritising well-being as a measure of progress (as against production and consumption centric GDP), progressive taxes on resource use and waste, shorten working week to slow down economic activity, fair distribution of national income and expansion of social good (Jason Hickel is recommended reading).

Also read: "Pakistan is one of the most vulnerable countries to weather patterns"

Globally, Pakistan is ranked as eighth out of ten countries most vulnerable to climate change. Sindh has been repeatedly pointed out to be the most vulnerable region to the shifting climatic patterns. The province’s expanded desertification is an indication of this reality. The development direction that prioritises consumerism, natural resource extraction, expansion of coal as energy source (raising to 50 percent by 2050) are some of the many examples that indicate a very non-serious approach of the state and the province towards a crisis that has now expanded beyond the voiceless low-income group and started impacting the daily lives of a more politically mobilised middle and upper-income groups.

The heatwave effect