According to the report published in July 2015 by the Ministry of Climate Change, Government of Pakistan, the heatwave that occurred in Karachi from June 17 to 25, 2015 caused the loss of more than 1200 human lives. The maximum recorded temperature was 44.8°C on June 20. As per the heat index, it felt like 66°C to the human body due to high humidity and low wind speed. According to experts, a heat index greater than 54°C puts people in extreme danger of heatstroke, which was the main cause for the casualties in Karachi.
Why is this an urgent issue for Karachi?
Compared to other areas in the country, heatwaves are particularly concerning for Karachi because of the Urban Heat Island (UHI) Effect. This means that the air temperature in urban areas is higher than the surrounding non-urban areas due to the transformation of natural areas into built surfaces, which trap solar radiation during the day and re-radiate it at nighttime to make the environment warmer. Urbanization has rapidly increased in Karachi over the past half century, and the population has increased to 23.7 million with a density of 24,000 persons per square kilometre. Research shows that depending on the time of the day, the temperature of Karachi is approximately 5.6°C to 13.5°C higher than the temperature of the surrounding non-urban areas. Given the increase in global warming and lack of coping mechanisms, UHI effect is expected to be a major threat to vulnerable populations in megacities such as Karachi.
How did the 2015 heatwave impact the city?
The 2015 heatwave in Karachi severely affected vulnerable population segments who are at a higher risk of heatstroke. The majority of the people who died included the elderly, the poor, the homeless, and labourers who work outdoors.
One of the major deficiencies that could be observed in dealing with the heatwave was the inability of the healthcare system to cater to the large number of patients. There is a shortage of trained medical staff, unavailability of hospital beds, and insufficient equipment. Currently, there are only 200 ventilators in all of the hospitals combined. About 65,000 people sought medical attention during the heatwave, primarily due to heatstroke, but the healthcare system lacks the infrastructure to serve such large numbers of people.
The 2015 heatwave was also particularly detrimental because it fell during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, when Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset. Since 95% of the population is Muslim, many abstained from food and water even under scorching heat. Moreover, it is illegal for Muslims to eat or drink publicly during the day. According to the Ehtram-e-Ramadan (Respecting Ramadan) Ordinance, 1981:
“No person who, according to the tenets of Islam, is under an obligation to fast shall eat, drink or smoke in a public place during fasting hours in the month of Ramadan.”
And, “No proprietor, manager, servant, or other person in charge of a hotel, restaurant or canteen, or other public place, shall knowingly and wilfully offer or serve or cause to be offered or served any eatables during fasting hours in the month of Ramadan to any person who, according to the tenets of Islam, is under an obligation to fast.”
Many religious clerics advised the public that it is okay not to fast during the heatwave according to Islamic teachings in the holy book of Quran. However, this law remained a hindrance in ensuring adequate access to water in public spaces to prevent dehydration and heatstroke. It was reported that many shops refused to sell food and water even during extreme heat conditions due to this law.
What exacerbated the situation were the long hours of load shedding, which is the shutdown of electric power due to excess demand. There is a massive supply-demand gap for electricity in Karachi. It is an everyday practice to deliberately cut off power supply to prevent a total system shutdown. This proved to be fatal amidst the heatwave, as vulnerable groups such as elderly women suffered deadly heatstrokes in the absence of fans or air conditioning. Medical facilities also suffered due to severe load shedding.
The Way Forward
The episode of 2015 has shown that Karachi is unprepared to deal with extreme heatwaves which is an urgent issue due to the changing climate conditions. The devastation caused by the heatwaves is predicted to grow more severe in the near future. In this situation, Karachi requires a heatwave management plan to prevent the loss of human life, particularly for the vulnerable populations who are most affected due to heatwaves.
In South Asia, the city of Ahmedabad has presented itself as a model. It established the first early warning system in the region, after the city suffered a severe heatwave which resulted in the deaths of over 1,700 people. The following measures are recommended to prevent the loss of lives due to heatwaves based on the Ahmedabad Heat Action Plan, as well as other appropriate measures specific to the context of Karachi:
Short Term Measures
- Early Warning System: The Pakistan Meteorological Department’s capacity should be developed to forecast and warn the city residents, hospitals, emergency responders, local community, and the media well in advance (at least seven days) of the heatwave.
- Public Awareness Campaign: To prevent heat-related deaths, it is important to raise awareness on actions that individuals and communities can take to prepare and respond to the heatwave. This includes educational campaigns such as recognizing the symptoms of heatstroke and early response guidance. Public service messages should be disseminated through television, radio, pamphlets, billboards, as well as in-person communication with vulnerable populations such as the homeless.
- Cooling Centres and Water Stations: During extreme heatwaves, cooling centres should be set up in public places such as mosques, community centres, public buildings, and malls to ensure that vulnerable groups, especially the homeless, have access to drinking water and shelter. Moreover, temporary tents with drinking water supplies should be established across the city.
- Health Adaptation Plan: To deal with heatstroke cases during heatwaves, it is crucial to build the capacity of the city’s healthcare system. This includes the training of healthcare professionals as well as provision of adequate equipment including hospital beds, ventilators, and generators to deal with electrical outages.
- Amendment of Ehtram-e-Ramadan Ordinance: Ramadan will fall again in June 2016 when Karachi is expected to face extreme heatwaves. Apart from encouraging religious leaders to educate the public not to fast in extreme heat, it is necessary to amend the law. Currently, the law strictly forbids eating or drinking in public places during Ramadan, as well as serving food or drinks to others. Revisions are required to allow flexibility when the month of Ramadan coincides with the heatwaves.
Medium/Long Term Measures
- Development of Alternative Energy Sources: To overcome Karachi’s acute electricity shortage, it is critical to explore alternative sources of electricity generation, particularly through renewable sources such as wind and solar energy.
- Urban Planning: To cope with the Urban Heat Island effect, it is fundamental to develop strategies to alter the city’s infrastructure so that it’s well-suited to deal with the changing climate. This includes measures such as use of materials with cooling properties, installation of shading devices, stringent building regulations, and creation of green spaces and water bodies such as fountains to absorb heat.
To implement these measures, it is imperative to build a network of stakeholders with clear responsibilities and coordination mechanisms that ensure effective service delivery. This includes partnerships between non-state actors, city administration, and various levels of governments.
Written By: Kiran Alwani