Pakistan is not the only country facing the problem. The entire South Asian region is at the risk of long and persistent heatwaves. It is the regions that contribute the least to climate change that are suffering the worst impacts
The National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) has issued a heatwave warning which will start from May 10 and will last till May 17 in different areas of the Sindh province. It is expected that the maximum temperature will cross 45 degrees Celsius (113 Fahrenheit). Daytime maximum temperatures will also rise to 46-48 degrees Celsius in Dadu, Sukkur, Larkana, Jacobabad, Shaheed Benazirabad, Noshero Feroz, Khairpur, Shikarpur and Ghotki districts. 43-45 degrees Celsius temperatures are expected in Jamshoro, Hyderabad, Badin, Thatta, Mirpurkhas and Umerkot districts during the period.
The months of March and April were also the hottest yet compared to the previous years. Pakistan is not the only country facing the proble. The entire South Asian region is at the risk of long and persistent heatwaves. According to the latest research published by the Science Daily, the western North America heatwave last summer was record-breaking with an all-time Canadian high of 49.6 °C in Lytton, British Columbia, on June 29, an increase of 4.6 °C from the previous peak. The study also calculated how extreme heatwaves were relative to the local temperature, and it showed the top three hottest-ever in the respective regions were in Southeast Asia in April 1998, which hit 32.8 degree Celsius, Brazil in November 1985, peaking at 36.5 degree Celsius, and Southern USA in July 1980, when temperatures rose to 38.4 degrees Celsius. The whole planet is experiencing extreme climate events. Heatwaves across the globe are making human survival difficult. For countries like Pakistan the stakes are even higher. It is primarily due to wet bulb temperatures.
The combination of measuring temperature and humidity is called wet bulb temperature. It is important to measure so that experts can estimate the ability of the human body to cool down. If the wet bulb temperature is higher than the human body temperature, then it is difficult to cool down. Exposure of five to six hours can be fatal for a healthy adult. Globally, from 1998-2017, more than 166,000 people died due to heatwaves, including more than 70,000 who died during the 2003 heatwave in Europe as per World Health Organisation (WHO). It doesn’t have specific data for mortality due to wet bulb temperatures in Pakistan. However, as per different sources, it caused deaths of more than 1,200 people in the year 2015. The latest Amnesty International report has called Jacobabad “unlivable for humans”.
The health impacts of high wet bulb temperature include heat exhaustion and heat strokes, swelling in the lower limbs, heat rashes on the neck, cramps, headaches, irritability, lethargy, weakness, severe dehydration, acute cerebro-vascular accidents and thrombogenesis. People already struggling with diseases and medical conditions are at a particularly higher risk. The heat is also very harmful for crops, vegetables and orchards. Power shortages and lack of cooling facilities make it lethal for the already vulnerable.
The health impacts of high wet bulb temperature include heat exhaustion and heat strokes, swelling in the lower limbs, heat rashes on the neck, cramps, headaches, irritability, lethargy, weakness, severe dehydration, acute cerebro-vascular accidents and thrombo-genesis. People already struggling with diseases and medical conditions are at a particularly higher risk.
The most challenging part is that there is no short-cut to mitigating the impact of extreme heatwaves and increasing temperatures. The increasing use of coal is another contributing factor. The most recent is the glacial lake outburst flood in Hunza which had a devastating impact on the community as many people lost their homes, fruit orchards and crops. Global warming is also putting pressure on water resources.
Moving forward, developed nations should fulfil the promise of providing finance, capacity-building support and technology transfer under the Paris Agreement to developing countries like Pakistan. Pakistan should also follow up on this obligation with great effort as we are the ones suffering due to climate change despite contributing very little to the emissions i.e. less than one percent.
Under the Paris Agreement, all signatories should reduce carbon emissions which requires rigorous efforts. The latest report of the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has already warned us that we are “very late”. The time to act is now as the impacts are already here.
There is a need to critically assess and build on initiatives like the Ten Billion Tree Tsunami. There is also a need to increase the green cover in urban areas to minimise the impact of heat. Deforestation and urban development have had devasting impacts. Urban planning is required for the new housing societies and the government should encourage vertical housing societies instead of horizontal. Materials used for construction should be resistant to the increasing temperatures.
The government needs to invest in a sustainable transportation system so that emissions from public transport can be minimised. Travelling on individual cars should be discouraged and those who can afford should be shifting to electric cars. But this is only possible if there is an excellent and user-friendly transport system that covers both rural and urban areas. There are models like China and Germany that we can learn from.
The month of June is expected to be tougher in terms of wet bulb temperatures therefore the early warning system should be made efficient and urgent. In addition to sharing important and potentially life-saving information on the internet, announcements should also be made in in mosques and on media on a regular basis to inform the public.
There is a need to declare a health emergency in hospitals. Beds and medication should be available for those exposed to the dry heat. Medical camps should be established. Cooling/ air conditioning should be provided in all panahgahs.
The relevant government departments should make sure that there is no power shortage in the country in the coming days. Loadshedding of more than 14 hours a day can make survival difficult.
District administrations need to play an active part against water tank mafias. They need to make sure that relevant departments are providing water in a timely manner to everyone. The public should avoid exposure to sun especially during peak heat hours.
The writer is an environmental expert at Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI). She tweets @S_Maryam8