OPINION: South Asia faces a deadly heatwave. Here’s what to do about it

by Fahad Saeed | Climate Analytics
Thursday, 28 April 2022 09:00 GMT

A man transports slabs of ice near an air cooler market on a hot summer day, in New Delhi, India, April 11, 2022. REUTERS/Anushree Fadnavis

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Pakistan and India are confronting brutal temperatures this week - but preparing better and shoring up water and power supplies could save lives

Fahad Saeed is an Islamabad-based climate scientist with Climate Analytics.

After I witnessed the deadly 2015 heatwave in South Asia, forecasts for another one come with serious feelings of dread.

Well over 3,000 people in Pakistan and India died during the 2015 heatwave, which coincided with the fasting month of Ramadan. Now severe summer heat is now becoming the norm in my part of the world.

Last year, mercury levels rose to 44 degrees Celsius in Karachi, the highest temperature in April since the country’s independence in 1947.

The record is set to be broken this week, as parts of Pakistan and northwestern India are forecasted to reach temperatures of around 50C (122 degrees Fahrenheit) — 10 degrees warmer than normal highs for April.

These heatwaves will only increase in frequency. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has told us that a one-in-50-years extreme heat event is now 4.8 times more likely at current temperatures.

Even with ambitious emissions reductions to hold global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees C, extreme heat events will be 8.6 times more frequent than today.

Unlike other extreme climate events that incur huge and obvious economic losses, heat is a ‘silent killer’, but one with big consequences.

My research focuses on heat. We know high levels of humidity make heatwaves much more brutal. When high temperatures combine with high humidity they seriously hamper the ability of the human body to evaporate moisture, which is how we maintain our internal temperature.

At a wet-bulb temperature of 35C – a temperature measure that combines heat and humidity levels - the human body cannot cool itself enough to survive more than a few hours.

Some areas of South Asia are already facing this deadly limit. Any increase to current global warming levels would expose even larger numbers of people to more deadly heat extremes. In South Asia that includes major urban centers such as Mumbai, Delhi and Dhaka.

South Asia has considerable development constraints, which has led to a particularly high level of vulnerability to climate hazards such as heatwaves. Karachi’s deadly 2015 heatwave offers some key insights.

That year, Pakistan’s Meteorological Department (PMD) was unable to forecast the event, and was not able to give authorities time to prepare. The National Disaster Management Committee (NDMA) only acted towards the end of the heatwave spell, when it received directions from the Prime Minister. The lack of coordination between the PMD and the NDMA was also criticised.

Power and water shortages were major contributors to the death toll. K-electric, which provided electricity to most of Karachi, was unable to meet the increased demand from public, and those suffering in the heat faced long hours without power.

Dehydration caused by fasting during the holy month of Ramadan was another reason that some people, especially the elderly, fell prey to heatstrokes.

This time, the situation isn’t so different from 2015. There have been improvements in forecasting but Pakistan is still currently experiencing power outages of up to 12 hours in some parts of the country.

With a new government in power for less than a month, politics in the country are in turmoil, which could stall action on ground as happened during the 2015 heatwave. Moreover, Ramadan – set to end this weekend - can further worsen impacts, with people fasting for 14-15 hours without drinking.

Ensuring the proper provision of water and power, to reduce the impact of heat, is critical. The current power shortages reinforce the case for more investment in and deployment of distributed renewable power to boost the supply of electricity during such extreme events.

Adding renewables, like solar power, could also help reduce emissions, which is critical to limiting global temperature rise to 1.5C.

Plans for increased coal and gas generation in the region will only exacerbate deadly heatwaves in the future. The IPCC’s Working Group II report is very clear that above 1.5C, vulnerable countries will not be able to adapt to some climate impacts.

Emergency measures also need to be taken in hospitals, to ensure timely delivery of healthcare to victims of heat stroke.

News media can alert people in the times of heat extremes and advise them to drink extra water, avoid large protein-rich meals that can drive up body temperature, and avoid unnecessary sun exposure.

We should also focus on creating makeshift “cooling centers” in public facilities, employing mosques, libraries, parks and swimming pools to help beat the heat.

Heatwaves are only going to get worse with every fraction of warming. Even with aggressive adaptation efforts, heat threats are here to stay – and that means holding global temperature rise to 1.5C is not an option for some people but a vital means to survive.

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