Govt Is Focused On Billion Tree Tsunami, Heatwave Centres Are Being Set Up. But In Long Run, It All Comes Down To Carbon Emissions
We were not ready to cope with unusual rains and windstorms that struck many parts of Pakistan over the course of last few years, damaging crops, and now heatwaves are knocking at our doors as summer sets in.
Pakistan continues to face extreme weather conditions in the form of floods, flashfloods, windstorms, heatwaves and droughts in different parts of the country. Every year our farmers are hit hard by the consequences of global warming. In the month of April, farmers lost their maize, wheat, fruit and vegetable crops due to windstorms and flash floods. And now warning alert has been issued for heatwaves.
According to a study, 30% of the world’s population is likely to experience worst heatwaves in the coming years and if global emissions continue to rise, this number may go up to 74%. Developing countries are among the worst hit by heatwaves as they do not have the capacity to adapt. Research studies show that heatwaves are expected to increase in next three years and will continue if we continue to rely on fossil fuels. If business as usual, for anthropogenic activities, continues then we’ll have an increase of 1.5 degrees in temperature between 2030 and 2050. This increase in temperature will make heatwaves hotter and more frequent.
It’s the new normal
The phenomenon of heat related events is the new normal in Pakistan. It has witnessed its highest temperature recorded (53.3 degrees Celsius in Mohenjo Daro, Sindh) in 2010. This temperature is claimed to be the highest ever recorded temperature in the region of Asia. Other areas of Pakistan with high temperatures include Turbat, Larkana, Jacobabad, Sibi, Padidan, Nawabshah, Mianwali, Rohri, Dadu, Noorpurthal, Sukkur, Sargodha, Lasbella, Multan, Bahalnagar, Pasni, Peshawar, Dera Ismail Khan and Bannu. All these areas (located in all four provinces) have experienced temperatures of 50 degrees Celsius or above during the last 20 years.
These heatwaves have affected the poor, women and children the most, and outdoor workers including policemen, traffic wardens, construction workers, farmers, postal men, drivers (without using air conditioning) and motorcyclists. According to estimates, 1300 people died because of heatwave in 2015 in Southern Pakistan with temperatures above 40 degrees Celsius. Almost 70,000 people were admitted in the hospitals in different parts of Karachi that year. In 2018, 65 deaths within four days of May were reported due to heat related illnesses in Karachi. The affected included poor, sick, old, outdoor workers, women, children and particularly those not having access to air conditioning systems.
The impact of heatwave is directly related to the level of humidity in the air. In extreme hot conditions, especially during daytime, human body sweats to cool down. During heatwave, human body is unable to cool down because of the presence of extreme humidity level in the air. Evaporation process slows down and causes difficulties in breathing, hence causing heat related illnesses, and death in extreme cases. Heatwave also causes muscle pain (spasms), dizziness, nausea, fainting and weak pulse. Chronic exposure to high heat also causes heart strokes and respiratory issues. According to research, children under the age of 14 are more likely to be impacted with heatwaves as their bodies are not acclimatised with increasing temperatures. High temperature causes imbalance in their electrolytes making them sick and vulnerable.
Causes of heatwave
Causes of extreme heat related events include increased population, urbanisation, deforestation, vehicular and industrial emissions, poor transportation as well as greenhouse gas emissions.
Provincial Disaster Management Authority (PDMA) of Sindh has declared health emergency and the government has established 185 cold water points. With population of approximately 15 million, only in Karachi, this small number of cold-water points will not be sufficient. Nor will the 24 ambulances and 112 heatwave centres suffice. We cannot ignore the fact that Pakistan is facing acute load shedding. People are experiencing load shedding from 6 to 18 hours on daily basis. Sukkur, Larkana and Khairpur districts are reportedly having longest hours of power outages. Without having access to electricity the bodily heat cannot cool down during prolonged heatwaves.
How to deal with it?
People’s capacity should be built to adapt to the climate change. Awareness should be raised to cope with heat related events before the on-set of heatwaves. Social media, print and electronic media can play a vital role in this regard. Summer vacations should start earlier so that the young children may avoid exposure to sun.
People should drink plenty of water and minimise their outdoor activities. Caffeine should be avoided. People working outdoor should keep themselves hydrated and take breaks in between their working hours to avoid direct sun exposure. According to one of the researches by Sustainable Development Policy Institute, there is a need to ensure the implementation of the labour laws to reduce the labourers’ vulnerability and to provide them a safe and secure working environment.
Rural migrants can improve their income only to a limited extent. There is a need to enforce minimum wage rate, thus enabling them to earn more and to become resilient to heat stress at both home as well as at workplace.
Early warnings should be given to communities through radio, television and mosques.
But in the long run…
For the long run we need to rely on renewables. Pakistan like other developing countries is relying on fossil fuels for energy generation which causes global warming and ultimately extreme weather events. We need to move towards climate smart energy solutions.
Current government is focused on 10 billion tree tsunami and one can hope that in coming 5 to 10 years we will witness less heat related events but we can only achieve this by cutting carbon emissions. Afforestation alone cannot help reduce urban heat. Better policies and better infrastructure are needed to cope with extreme heat events.
The author is Environmental Expert at Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI)