Hundreds succumb to extreme temperatures as severe heatwave engulfs Pakistan

Photo by Aa Dil, via Pexels. Used under a Pexels Licence.

Glaciers are melting in extreme heat in Pakistan. Photo by Aa Dil, via Pexels. Used under a Pexels Licence (free to use).

This May and June, Pakistan faced an unusual heatwave that has claimed hundreds of lives. The extreme temperatures, especially in Karachi and surrounding areas, have overwhelmed healthcare systems and emergency services. As the global climate crisis worsens, Pakistan stands at the forefront of climate change impacts.

This year, the country experienced abnormal pre-monsoon weather before the heatwaves. Heavy rains and floods were followed by temperatures that soared above 45 degrees Celsius, forest fires erupted, authorities issued warnings asking citizens to stay indoors, and hospitals set up heatwave units. Glaciers melting at an accelerated pace are expected to lead to heavier floods during the upcoming monsoon season.

Pakistan witnessed unusually wet weather in March and April this year, a phenomenon not seen since 1961. The Pakistan Metrological Department (PMD) and National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) issued warnings of heavy rains, thunderstorms, landslides, and floods. According to a report by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), since April 12, 2024, 124 people, including women and children, have died, 153 people have been injured during floods, and over 6,000 houses have been damaged by flood water across Pakistan.

Two rounds of heatwave in Pakistan

In May, the climate took an extreme swing. The PMD and NDMA issued their first advisory stating that the provinces of Punjab and Sindh would face a heatwave from May 23 to 27, with temperatures expected to rise to approximately 45°C or above. Mohenjo-daro, an archaeological city in the Sindh province in southeastern Pakistan, experienced temperatures above 50°C. Meanwhile, several areas in Balochistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Gilgit-Baltistan, and Azad Kashmir witnessed dust storms and thunderstorms with isolated rains.

Although the PMD announced that thunderstorms were expected in June and that high temperatures would subside in most areas of Pakistan, the government warned the public that another heatwave was anticipated. Towards the end of June, reports of deaths started coming in from Karachi in Sindh, as temperatures soared. In a span of six days, over 568 people died with 141 succumbing to the heat on June 25 alone. It seemed like a repeat of the 2015 heatwave that killed over 2,000 people.

The public was advised to exercise caution in national parks and avoid discarding cigarette butts or other flammable materials, as well as leaving vehicle windows slightly open to prevent fires. Portions of the Margalla Hills of Islambad caught fire, prompting government efforts to extinguish it and and leading to the arrest of suspected individuals deemed responsible.

Usually, the summer break in schools starts in June, but due to rising temperatures, the government ordered schools to shut down early to protect children from heatstroke and dehydration. As hospitals began to fill with heatstroke patients across the two provinces, heatwave units were also established.

According to the Advanced Geospatial Data Management (Adam) platform, which gathers data on environmental changes, a tweet with an image indicated that on May 30, 2024, India and Pakistan were the hottest places on earth, with air temperatures exceeding 53°C:

As per the PMD's prediction, the weather in July is cooling down by a few degrees, and it has rained in most parts of the country. However, warmer weather is expected to persist for a few weeks. This will increase the likelihood of Glacial Lake Outburst Flood (GLOF) events, flash floods, landslides, and a rise in river stream flows due to melting.

Heatwave and their impact

Heatwaves result from warm air being trapped in the atmosphere for many days. Large urban areas face challenges related to heat trapped in the area due to the concentrated release of heat from buildings, vehicles, and industry.

According to the World Health Organization, exposure to such high temperatures causes heat exhaustion and heatstroke — a condition that causes faintness and dry, warm skin due to the body's inability to control high temperatures, among other symptoms. It can cause severe dehydration, acute cerebrovascular accidents, and contribute to thrombogenesis (blood clots).

Globally, heatwaves are increasing in intensity and frequency due to climate change resulting from greenhouse gas emissions. This prolonged heat entrapment leads to the devastation of food crops and food shortages.

Global Voices asked environmental lawyer and member of the Pakistan Climate Change Council Rafay Alam, on WhatsApp, to explain the heatwaves. He said:

The root cause of what is now being called the Asian Heatwave of 2024 is the 1.2-1.3°C global warming the earth has experienced since the Industrial Revolution due to the use of fossil fuels. Scientists now tell us there are enough greenhouse gases in the atmosphere to lock in a 1.5°C increase by the end of this decade.

How to be prepared

To address such rising temperatures in Pakistan, the government needs to tackle the situation urgently. Global Voices interviewed Zofeen T. Ebrahim, a Karachi-based freelance journalist, who said:

There is an NDMA Guideline Heat Wave Action Plan 2024-25 that needs to be looked into by the provinces and made operational. The plan can be made public through mass media so people can take immediate steps. District governments can set up cooling stations, provide water to commuters, offer wet towels, and provide a place to sit under a fan and rest. Hospitals should be fully equipped with ice, drinking water, and beds. Electricity DISCOS must be pressed to provide electricity during extreme heat. The government cannot reach everyone, but youth volunteer groups can be formed and mobilized at local levels, especially in informal settlements, to ensure the elderly and disabled remain comfortable. It is also time to reconsider urban architecture and designs to reflect heat and reduce the heat island effect.

Ebrahim further said, “We need to have a robust public transport system to reduce emissions, invest in renewable energy, grow more trees and minimize the use of concrete.”

Heatwaves are not the only concern; every year, Punjab is affected by seasonal dense smog that impacts health conditions and visibility. This year, Punjab is treating smog as a year-round epidemic requiring urgent interventions, and it has launched an early anti-smog campaign.

To address the urgent challenges posed by climate change, the Pakistan government recently revised and increased the budget for the Ministry of Climate Change by PKR 11.82 billion (USD 42.43 million) in the 2024–25 budget. The government needs to ensure that these funds are spent as per global standards and adequately address climate-related demands.

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