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Scant hope for relief as repeated heat waves scorch Pakistan

‘Our crops are under immense stress, and workers on the fields have been coming down with heatstroke.’

Heat waves have been growing in number and intensity for several years in South Asia. Here, a man cools off under a public tap, while others wait to fill their bottles, during intense hot weather in Karachi in June 2015. Akhtar Soomro/Reuters
Heat waves have been growing in number and intensity for several years in South Asia. Here, a man cools off under a public tap, while others wait to fill their bottles, during intense hot weather in Karachi in June 2015.

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In Pakistan’s north, rising levels of heat have accelerated glacial melting, triggering the collapse of a historic bridge in the Hunza Valley, bordering China. In the south, weakened flows to the Indus river have resulted in a nearly 38 percent water shortage in Punjab and Sindh – major crop-producing provinces.

Across South Asia, a lethal, record-breaking heat wave continues to scorch the region. Northwest and central India experienced their hottest April since 1900 – and temperatures are likely to continue rising throughout May.

While high temperatures have always been prevalent in northwest Pakistan and India, research from the UK’s Met Office released this week shows that the climate emergency has made those heat waves 100 times more likely. Despite the pressing need for government action, researchers, scientists, and ordinary Pakistanis struggling to cope with their third heat wave already this year say little has been done to mitigate the impacts.

Time is running out, fast. According to a report published by ActionAid, more than 62 million people in South Asia will be forced to migrate from their homes due to climate disasters by 2050. In a best-case scenario, by 2030 there will be upwards of 600,000 climate migrants in Pakistan due to sea-level rise, water stress, crop yield reductions, ecosystem loss, and drought. However, without aggressive global action on emissions, that number is expected to be closer to 1.2 million.

“Extreme heat is not alien in our part of the world,” Fahad Saeed, an Islamabad-based climate scientist working with Climate Analytics, a non-profit that provides global analysis, told The New Humanitarian.

“We simply have no water.”

But the situation has worsened considerably in recent years amid global heating. In 2018, Nawabshah in Sindh province experienced the hottest April day on record anywhere, with the mercury touching 50.2 Celsius. Markets remained shut, roads were deserted, business activities came to a grinding halt, and scores of heatstroke victims ended up in hospital. As deadly heat stress becomes commonplace across South Asia, the temperatures, Saeed said, are pushing the limits of human survivability. 

Sindh has seen temperatures hit 48 degrees Celsius this month. As a result, the water table is nearly empty, meaning farmers can’t use the tube wells they rely upon for irrigation. “We simply have no water,” Shershah Soomro, one such farmer, told The New Humanitarian. “This year’s heat waves have been unprecedented. Our crops are under immense stress, and workers on the fields have been coming down with heatstroke.”

Government response falling short

As recently as 15 years ago, farmers planted potatoes in September. 

“Now, we plant them in October,” explained Chaudhry Muhammad Ashraf, a project development specialist at the Pakistan Agriculture Coalition, a non-profit based in Lahore. “This is how farmers adapt to changing weather patterns, and have done so since time immemorial.” 

But despite sensible mitigation efforts like changed planting schedules and the introduction of drought-resistant seeds, many worry that Pakistan remains woefully underprepared for the changing climate.

Experts have been sounding warning bells about the disastrous impact of heat waves for decades. They are poised to become more frequent across South Asia, even if global warming is contained at 1.5 degrees Celsius, as per the aspirational Paris Agreement. Meanwhile, Pakistan has consistently ranked among the top 10 countries most vulnerable to climate change, according to the Global Climate Risk Index.

“We are among the countries worst affected by the climate crisis, but also among the worst in terms of adaptability.”

At a press conference on 16 May, newly appointed Minister for Climate Change Sherry Rehman stressed the need for “lifestyle changes” and water conservation in order to reduce the impact of climate change. She added that Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif had set up a National Task Force that would “take measures against [the] heat wave”. However, it remains unclear what these measures might be – Rehman did not respond to requests for comment.

Zeenia Shaukat, a labour rights activist and researcher, told The New Humanitarian there seems to be no contingency plan, at least in Sindh where she lives. For instance, the government there has erected just “a few tents and coolers installed at random places”, she said, adding: “These are in tatters days later.”

“This is a double whammy for us,” said Saeed, the Islamabad-based climate scientist. “We are among the countries worst affected [by the climate crisis], but also among the worst in terms of adaptability.”

Saeed suggested a multi-pronged approach, beginning with a push towards reducing global emissions. “At the local level, we should improve our prediction models and ensure an uninterrupted supply of electricity,” he said. Despite rising levels of heat, power cuts across Pakistan’s cities have continued unabated, with some areas of the largest city, Karachi, being left without electricity for up to 18 hours. “We should be developing makeshift cooling centres. Our disaster management authority needs to be on its toes.”

The situation hasn’t been helped by ongoing political turmoil. Just last month, Sharif’s predecessor Imran Khan was ousted as prime minister, plunging the country into a constitutional crisis that lasted several days. And while Pakistan does have a National Climate Change Policy in place, it dates back to 2012. 

“The problem with Pakistan’s climate change policies,” said environment researcher Dawar Butt, “is that they fall short when it comes to the detrimental impact climate change has on public health, especially the prolonged impact of heat stress on the human body.”

Butt highlighted research that shows hot temperature exposure over a long period results in organ damage, meaning a three-month heatwave is likely to have long-term consequences for large swathes of the country’s population that do not have access to cooling. 

The net effect, according to Butt, is likely to be more climate migration. “Soon, we will begin to see scores of people from the plains – Nawabshah, Jacobabad, and other heat surplus zones – making their way south, towards Karachi,” he said. “And although we don’t have statistics to back this up, evidence suggests that migration, to an extent, has already occurred: We saw people moving to Karachi after the Indus Delta ran out of water and people needed access to jobs and livelihood.”

Pakistan is already no stranger to large-scale climate migration. In July 2010, nearly 10 million people were displaced by floods that inundated one fifth of the country, killing 2,000 people and triggering mass migration towards the cities. In the year that followed, the floods struck again, affecting 18 million and destroying 1.7 million homes. According to the researcher, Shaukat, the government response at the time was abysmal – both the immediate provision of food and housing and the longer-term support. 

Even now, she said, migrants from the 2010 and 2011 floods continue to live in squalor in Pakistan’s cities. “Because, for them, what is back home – after losing their livestock, livelihood, all their possessions – is worse,” Shaukat explained. “Our disaster management requires a critical review. Our policymakers, decision-makers and other folks at the helm of disaster management are completely cut off from the realities of those suffering from natural disasters or climate change-related distress.”

Instead, there appears to be a continuation of the status quo. In Karachi, developers are still sinking millions of dollars into large gated communities and highways to bring people there – despite the objections of environmentalists. Pakistan is also significantly dependent on fossil fuels for electricity production – 86 percent of its primary energy comes from fossil fuels.

Most vulnerable

Junaid Ahmed Dahar, an activist based in the Sindh city of Larkana, told The New Humanitarian that the impact of the heat waves has already been disastrous, especially for those working outdoors – construction workers, labourers, transport workers, and farmers. 

“Our decision-makers are not considering the long-term impact of climate change and the fact that these regions will soon become inhabitable. Camps with water coolers – that are only functional for one or two hours at max – are not a viable solution,” he said. “We have crossed 50 degrees already [in Larkana]. As climate change picks up pace in the years to come, I doubt human survival will be possible in this region.” 

And this year’s wheat shortfall, predicted to reach nearly three million tons, will significantly impact Pakistan’s food security, said Hasan Hanif, a Karachi-based agriculturalist. Next door, India has already begun considering restricting wheat exports as severe heat waves have damaged crops. Such restrictions could pose a major blow to global wheat supplies that have already been decimated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – more than a quarter of the world’s wheat exports come from the two countries. 

And it’s not just the climate crisis that has restricted Pakistan’s wheat production, explained Hanif. Like many nations, Pakistan has been hit hard by the global fertiliser shortage, and the government waited too long to raise the minimum support price for wheat – leaving farmers struggling to earn an adequate living. 

At Wasim Leghari’s farm in Nawabshah – where temperatures have again soared to nearly 50 degrees Celsius this month – the bananas are overripe and tasteless.

The entire year has been erratic, Leghari said, and his bananas, wheat, and cotton crops have suffered. January saw heavy showers across Pakistan’s southern plains – an anomaly in an area where winter rainfall is sparse. In March, spring disappeared entirely with temperatures reaching 42 degrees Celsius. Now, Nawabshah is already in the midst of its third heat wave of 2022 – and it is only May. “We are not being able to cope,” Leghari said.

Edited by Abby Seiff.

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