Pakistan parched by heatwave, fears of future rains

Almost every corner of Karachi is showing signs of a heatwave scorching the sun-drenched city.

Hundreds of people suffering from heatstroke are arriving at hospitals every day, far exceeding their capacity, and morgues are struggling to find space to house the bodies they are overwhelmed with.

Frustrated residents have begun blocking roads with stones and sticks to protest against a lack of electricity and drinking water, and usually bustling markets and streets are deserted as people avoid leaving their homes except for essential needs.

Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city and economic hub, has become the latest to be hit as South Asia is hit by a heatwave this summer that is a stark reminder of the deadly toll of climate change in a part of the world particularly vulnerable to its effects and in a country where poor governance and widening economic inequality are exacerbating the suffering of the poorest people.

During eight particularly harrowing days late last month, temperatures reached 104 degrees Fahrenheit (40 degrees Celsius) and high humidity made the misery even worse. It was the hottest day since 2015, when authorities reported that more than 1,200 people died of heatstroke in Karachi.

With temperatures still soaring close to 100 degrees Fahrenheit, the sense of danger continues.

“It’s like living in a furnace,” said Akbar Ali, 52, a rickshaw driver who has transported many heatstroke patients to hospital in recent weeks. “It’s scary to see people collapse on the streets.”

Karachi, a port city on the Arabian Sea, is known for its hot summers and monsoon floods — extreme weather conditions that are particularly hard on the 60 percent of residents who live in the city’s vast slums, where homes are built of shoddy concrete or tarpaulins and the roads are unpaved.

But this summer has been particularly bad: During the heatwave between June 23 and June 30, the city’s largest morgue saw roughly three times as many bodies delivered as usual in a single day, according to the Edhi Foundation, a charity known for running a massive morgue and providing a large ambulance fleet.

In total, around 700 bodies were received at the charity’s morgues over the past eight days. While the cause of death has not been revealed in all cases, the timing is suggestive.

“This is a humanitarian crisis, but many of the deaths from heatwaves will not be officially recorded as heatstroke deaths.” Elm Heider“These problems are often categorized as ‘fever,’ ‘heart attacks,’ ‘infant mortality,’ and so on, obscuring their true impact,” said Dr. Gregory B. Schneider, a researcher at the University of Worcester who studies civic issues in Karachi.

Power outages in the slums have become more frequent and longer in recent weeks, lasting anywhere from six to 16 hours a day. Without electricity, millions of people are denied the comfort of electric fans (air conditioning is rare). Frustrated by the blackouts, residents regularly block major roads in protest.

Haider said the power outage was “devastating for everyone in the region during this heatwave, but especially for infants, elderly people and pregnant women.”

Water is also scarce. Many areas face severe water shortages, with the lack of clean drinking water becoming a public health crisis. In Karachi, a significant portion of the population purchases water from private companies through water tankers, as the city’s water infrastructure cannot meet the needs of all residents. In summer, shortages force people to purchase water even in areas that are usually served by piped water. Prices for water tankers have skyrocketed, further straining already struggling communities.

“The price of water tankers has doubled, even tripled,” said Mehmood Siddiqui, a private school teacher who earns $143 a month. “For a water tanker, I was paying $14 last month, but now I’m being charged $28. It’s outrageous.”

Hospitals are overwhelmed with patients suffering from heatstroke and severe dehydration.

“We are seeing far more patients than usual complaining of high fever, weakness, gastroenteritis, vomiting and diarrhea,” said Nasreen Gul, a nurse at Jinnah Postgraduate Medical Centre, the city’s largest public hospital.

Government officials have sought to downplay reports of major heatwave deaths, with Karachi Commissioner Hassan Naqvi citing data from government hospitals to suggest the number of deaths was negligible.

Government authorities have set up cooling centres across the city, and charities are also providing relief to residents, setting up roadside camps offering mist sprays, chilled water and rooh afza, a popular summer drink in South Asia.

Rain offered respite in Karachi last Thursday after midday temperatures soared to 104 degrees Fahrenheit. But it highlighted the city’s vulnerability to another major summer weather problem: devastating flooding.

“We can pray for rain and cooler weather,” said Ali Afzal, 44, a car mechanic in Karachi whose house was destroyed in urban flooding caused by heavy rains in July 2022. “But more rain will bring new challenges, especially for city dwellers who are not prepared to deal with it.”

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