Warning: Pakistan is at the broiling point
This weekend, Pakistan was one the hottest places in the world.
My hometown, Karachi, with a population of 25 million, buckled under 102°F (38.9°C) heat.
Jacobabad and Nawabshah, home to nearly 500,000 people, were even hotter, with record-shattering temperatures exceeding 120°F (48.9°C) on multiple days.
The 14-day forecast is even worse: Next weekend, Lahore is forecasted to hit 122°F (50°C).
As searing temperatures sweep across the fifth most populous (and fifth most climate-vulnerable) country in the world, Pakistanis without reliable access to energy are sweltering in the punishing heat with no reprieve.
Rural and low-income districts broil during 9- to 12-hour-long blackouts. Pakistan’s latest energy crisis has dealt a crippling blow to an already overburdened and decrepit grid system unable to meet the surging nationwide demand for electricity. The prices of coal and liquid natural gas, critical inputs for Pakistan’s fossil-fueled power plants, continue to skyrocket during the Russian invasion of Ukraine, driving prices far beyond the purchasing power of the impoverished South Asian nation that is currently saddled with over $216 billion in national debt.
This horrific tragedy is unfolding against the backdrop of the ongoing global COVID-19 pandemic, a chronic water shortage coupled with extreme flooding from rapid glacier melt, and as of two days ago, a deadly cholera outbreak infecting thousands in northern Pakistan. The soaring temperatures also threaten vital exports of cash crops and the food security of 220 million people, a majority of whom already live in acute multidimensional poverty, i.e. experience deprivation in health (nutrition, child mortality), education (years of schooling, school attendance), and living standards (cooking fuel, sanitation, drinking water, electricity, housing and assets).
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reported that April 2022 was the hottest in Pakistan and India since global record-keeping commenced in 1880. May 2022 will likely follow suit.
These unprecedented heatwaves threaten the livelihoods of millions of low-income Pakistanis who are day laborers, farmers and outdoor workers who cannot afford to “take cover” and remain indoors during peak heatwave hours of 11 am to 4 pm. Excessive exposure to high heat combined with high humidity, which limits how much the human body can cool off by sweating, is lethal for the elderly and those with underlying health conditions, but can also quickly become deadly for young and otherwise healthy individuals. The heat also worsens health outcomes for high-risk groups, especially those suffering from asthma and respiratory diseases due to Pakistan having the second worst air quality in the world.
The National Disaster Management Authority, Pakistan Meteorological Department, and state and local governments and disaster management authorities have collectively issued widespread warnings to the wider public about dangerous temperatures and warning signs of deadly heat stroke, especially among children and the elderly, including via emergency text blasts and social media posts.
Unfortunately, Pakistan’s national and local disaster management plans fall short of the necessary levels of funding, inclusivity and urgency to meet the scale of the crisis. This is confirmed by a review of various official documents, including the Karachi Heatwave Management Plan, the Billion Tree Tsunami Afforestation Project (2014), the 10 Billion Tree Tsunami Project (2018), the Inclusive Wealth of Pakistan: The Case for Investing in Natural Capital and Restoration (2021), and the most recent Updated National Determined Contributions submitted to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change at COP26 (2021).
The following are conspicuously absent from Pakistan’s current mitigation and disaster management strategies:
1. Inclusive disaster risk reduction to support high-risk, disabled and elderly Pakistanis:
Key risk-reduction proposals are missing specific strategies that cater to the unique needs and vulnerabilities of disabled individuals and elderly residents, especially those residing in rural and remote communities with limited to no accessibility. The national government may also need to consider earmarking (or raising) emergency funds for food and water during the worst heatwave days to protect farmers, laborers and outdoor workers from exposure.
2. Public-private partnerships for heat management and “clean” cooling:
The Pakistan Cooling Action Plan needs a clear policy directive to buy back and/or phase out R22 and R22 Freon air conditioners that began to be sold at fire sale prices in Pakistan following international bans in more developed countries. The Ministry of Climate Change must also seek partnerships with European and North American cities to assist with designing and funding the billions that will be needed for robust heatwave management strategies.
3. A viable long-term development strategy to address Pakistan’s chronic energy insecurity:
Energy poverty and insecurity will continually exacerbate climate risk and result in huge GDP losses, along with stunting the development of Pakistan’s youth (over 64 percent of the population is aged 30 and younger), who are facing significant interruptions to their schooling and employment, as well as experiencing adverse physical and mental health as a consequence.
There has never been a clearer clarion call to climate action nor more compelling evidence that climate change is an acute threat multiplier in the poorest, most vulnerable frontline countries in the world.
The nightmare scenario for Pakistan is not 2050 or 2100.
If nothing changes, and fast, many in Pakistan may not even survive 2030.
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