KARACHI: With temperatures rising above 40°C in various parts of Southern Pakistan on June, 2015, a record breaking number of casualties were reported in the port city of Karachi. So, why was it Karachi, that bore the brunt of most deaths? And, what are the reasons behind this catastrophic phenomenon?
During the summer season, the mega urban center displayed exceedingly high occasional day temperatures. According to Pakistan Meteorological Department (PMD) records, this severe heat wave event persisted for five consecutive days from 19th to 23rd June, with the maximum temperature recorded at 45°C on 20th June. It was reported as the third major heat wave event after the last two episodes in the summer of 1938 and 1979.
According to the statistics combined by the Sindh Government, Ministry of Climate Change, a total number of 100,000 people were affected by heatstroke and an estimated death toll of 1200 had been reported in Karachi only. On the other hand, Bloomberg Business stated a death toll of 2000 people in the two weeks of a severe heat wave.
There had been major electricity outages by K-Electric in the midst of the catastrophe which crippled the water supply system, hampering the pumping of millions of gallons of water to customers. Shahida Khan, a resident living in the slums of Daalmiyah, Karachi, said, “The government tells us to stay indoors in the wake of such extreme temperatures. Even if we stay indoors, there’s no electricity and water. So we will suffer anyway.”
The heat wave coincided with the month of Ramadan in which Muslims observe fasts. This led to an increase in medical complications as people were not willing to receive treatments. Yusra Askari, an aid worker at the Jinnah Postgraduate Medical Center (JPMC) Camp, said, “there was an overall reluctance in obtaining treatment at the medical camps because people were not willing to break their fasts due to religious reasons.”
International Business Times reported the edict of Mufti Muhammed Naeem, a religious scholar, that allowed Muslims to break their fasts if their lives were under threat. On the other hand, Pakistani law forbids eating and drinking in public which further led to confusion amongst the population.
Moreover, the majority of people who died in the heat wave were the poor, who are more exposed to the sun, and older people, who are less able to release heat from their bodies. Morgues had reached their capacities and could not accommodate more dead bodies. Rukhsana Shamim, a former menial staff worker at the A.M.I School, Karachi, died within the school premises on June 20, 2015. Her family was told not to bring her dead body to the Eidhi morgue as they were lacking facilities.
A lack of sheets and stretchers were reported at all the major government hospitals due to which private health and social workers took the situation under their control and set up emergency camps at various places. They launched a campaign on social media and were able to deliver several hundred water bottles within a few hours. “This was an example of what private and public individual initiative can do,” said a student of JPMC, who chose to remain anonymous.
The government’s failure of taking control of the situation led to a historically unprecedented large number of casualties in Karachi.
Cause of the Heat-Wave Event
In order to understand the cause of the ongoing heat-wave event in Karachi, the ministry of Climate Change in Sindh prepared a technical report and studied the regional atmospheric conditions over the heat-wave stricken areas. The analysis revealed that the Urban Heat Island (UHI) effect is a major contributor to the severe heat wave hazard in Karachi. The UHI is a phenomenon that refers to a city or metropolitan area that is comparatively warmer than its surrounding areas due to human activities. Karachi is home to more than 18 million people with a density of 4,115 person per kilometer square. With the given rate of urbanization and population growth, Karachi has become a victim of the UHI effect which becomes the cause of future heat waves.
A range of factors play a role in the formation of a heat wave. Asif Shuja Khan, Former Director General of the Environmental Protection Agency of Pakistan, said “persistent and unplanned urbanization, deforestation, lack of green areas, open spaces, lack of hygiene practices, and building and transportation systems create the heat island effect which adds up to extreme temperatures”
A way forward for the future?
Pakistan Global Change Impact Study Centre (GCISC) has predicted a rise in the occurrence of such extreme weather conditions in the future. Learning lessons from the fatal incident of June 2015, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) has prepared a set of Heat-Health Warning System (HHWS) to avoid the impacts of such disasters. The HHWS caters to health departments, academic institutions, general public, hazard community and government authority.
Mr Khan emphasized the governments urgency to equip National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) and Pakistan Disaster Management Authority (PDMA) with response teams and necessary logistics, establish provincial emergency funds, and designate and train civil society organizations to assist NDMA and PDMAs in emergencies. He also stressed the Ministry of Climate Change to initiate a national awareness program on climate change impacts for state and non-state organizations and general public on the impact of climate change and the need for more preparedness.