Climate Change Tragedy.
When Reham Khan, wife of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf Chairman Imran Khan, visited Karachi's Jinnah Hospital on July 4, she did not find a single patient there suffering from heat stroke. Her visit came too late as all patients who were under treatment from the vagaries of heat at the hospital had been discharged.
But the preceding weeks had been a sorry tale of tragedy for the city. As of June 29, 2015, the calamity had claimed 1,400 lives, mostly in Karachi, and in other parts of the southern parts of Pakistan. It was a heat wave that caused the highest recorded temperatures in Karachi since 1979 up to 45 degrees Celsius. A similar heat wave had killed 2,500 people in India earlier in May this year.
It was said to be a deadly combination of factors that caused the tragedy - poor urban planning, a crippled energy infrastructure, climate change, Ramazan and freak weather conditions. Besides those who died, more than 65,000 people suffered from heat strokes during the two-week calamity that started on June 19.
The number of dead bodies was so high and the heat so intense that morgues ran out of space and the dead had to be buried without being identified.
Compounding the heat was the mysterious disappearance of the breeze that normally blows in from the Arabian Sea. This was said to be due to low pressure in the sea, which was blamed on climate change.
The heat wave disproportionately affected Karachi's poorest residents. Most of those who died were daily-wage workers who have to be outdoors and cannot any take days off regardless of weather conditions or sickness. The homeless citizens of the city faced even greater risks.
Due to the sudden and high number of dead, people faced problems with funeral prayers and also finding space for graves. The Edhi Foundation said the city had never seen so many people suffering from heatstroke and dying. One sordid aspect of the tragedy was that the cost of graves suddenly shot up and was outside the reach of the poor people. Most of those who died or were treated for heatstroke were fasting as the heat wave began two days after the start of Ramazan.
Environmentalists said the number of deaths could have been avoided despite the extreme weather. They blamed both the Federal government in Islamabad as well as the Sindh government in addition to the deficient energy transmission and distribution network of Karachi Electric. Unplanned expansion of the metropolis and the sprouting of kachhi abadis (slums) all over the city was also quoted as a reason. Other experts felt the disaster was due to the utter lack of ability of civic agencies to respond under demanding circumstances. It is also true that during the past decades, the city's tree cover has been reduced or even altogether removed in many places by the unthinking builder mafia.
Pakistan has suffered massive electricity shortages for years, with blackouts and load-shedding in which the electricity supply is deliberately cut off in major parts of the country. Turning off electricity during a heat wave proves to be all the more fatal, because it cuts off fans, ACs and medical facilities. Karachi's power utility, K-Electric paid no heed to this aspect and continued with its load-shedding schedule. Even before the power outages, many hospitals in Karachi were desperately overstretched and lacked basic facilities. The huge influx of extra patients during the heat wave left them unable to cope even further.
The Sindh provincial government was roundly criticized for responding very slowly to the unfolding crisis but it in turn blamed the federal government and K-Electric for cutting off power during the crisis. For its part, K-Electric maintained that due to the increase in consumption there was a failure of electricity in the city. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif also visited Karachi some days after the tragedy but he avoided discussing the matter with local officials and neither did he visit any hospital.
The question constantly being asked was that had Karachi also become a victim of the climate change phenomenon Where was all the heat coming from Baffled authorities were wondering what was happening to the weather patterns in the city though there must have been prior indications of the oncoming high temperatures
In fact, scientists had warned for some time that heat waves would become more frequent and intense in this part of the world due to climate change but the Pakistan government was oblivious to the impending threat. The heat wave, when it came, was further amplified by the high humidity, load-shedding and low water consumption during Ramazan.
Usually, the weeks leading to the start of the monsoon season are the warmest of the year throughout Pakistan. However, Karachi, being on the Arabian Sea coast, is blessed by a sea breeze which moderates the city's weather. But during the week preceding the heat wave, due to a low-pressure system in the sea, the breeze did not blow towards the city, leading to a spike in temperatures. Weather experts said that, consequently, a low pressure system developed over the Arabian Sea and the winds blew towards the low pressure area - from the coast to the sea.
The sea breeze moderates temperatures in Karachi, which would otherwise rise to 50 degrees Celsius in May and June. A low pressure system over the Arabian Sea is a normal feature for these months and does not last for more than four days. As such, the pre-monsoon season was expected to arrive on the night of June 23 and it was likely that Karachi and the rest of the country would receive rainfall in the coming days.
There are weather experts who believe that this part of the globe is certainly experiencing a climate change. They say the change contributes to the major survival concerns for Pakistan, particularly in relation to the country's water, food and energy security. But how much of these challenges are manageable and up to which degree does the subject need further exploring They believe that in view of the changes in climate, the government should have been cognizant of what was happening and should have been alert to the impending situation, ready to provide timely advice to citizens on how to deal with the extreme weather conditions.
With hundreds of Karachiites suffering due to the sudden heat wave, understanding weather patterns and how they may be affecting the people's health and their quality of life is becoming increasingly important. It is also important to realize that heat waves have a much greater health impact in urban areas than in surrounding suburban and rural areas. Urban areas typically experience higher temperatures because of the "heat island" effect. It must also be remembered that given the rising average global temperature, extreme heat waves will become more common worldwide in the years to come.
A burden of responsibility must also be borne by the environmentalists and weather experts in this respect. The Pakistan government has a Ministry of Climate Change led by Sen. Mushadidullah Khan as well as an Environment Protection Agency (EPA) but none of these bodies seem to be bothered about the whole issue.
All is, however, not lost because mortalities during heat waves can be reduced, if not prevented altogether. There is a good lesson to be learnt in how one Indian state responded to the emergency some years back. After a heat wave in 2010 killed an estimated 3,000 people in Ahmedabad, the administration established a Heat Health Action Plan" that raised awareness of health risks from extreme heat among citizens and trained healthcare workers to recognize signs of heat stress. City officials realized that coordinated action was needed to prepare for the rising threat of extreme heat and scientists worked to develop a forecast system that could alert the administration to impending heat waves several days in advance.
Perhaps the administration in Islamabad and Karachi as well as the Ministry of Climate Change can learn from this example and prepare for future heat waves which scientists say will be more common in the coming summers.