KEEPING HYDRATED: On their way home from school, Thari boys gather to quench their thirst from a bucket of water, Photo by Daniel Bachhuber
KEEPING HYDRATED: On their way home from school, Thari boys gather to quench their thirst from a bucket of water, Photo by Daniel Bachhuber

When it comes to beating the heat, rural communities in Sindh know their onions. Literally.

The prevailing wisdom in villages across Sindh is to eat raw onions as salad with lunch, as they believe onions have anti-heat characteristics and eating raw onions will save them from sunstrokes. Since famers are most vulnerable to the summer heat as they spend most of their working day in the field, their diet is usually composed of onions with raw mango for lunch.

Then there are juicy fruits and special summer drinks to protect them from dehydration. Watermelons are a common fruit of choice, while lassi and thadal are the drinks of choice for rural communities in the summers. In some northern districts, adding bhang to thadal is fairly common — those who consume this mix say that it keeps their internal body temperatures very cool. In lower Sindh, gur ka sharbat is another remedy used to ward off dehydration.

Apart from the lack of urban sprawl and its heat-intensifying effects, it is such practices that allow rural communities to brave the extremities of temperature and survive the heat. While mercury levels soared in Karachi over the past fortnight, claiming the lives of over 1,000 citizens, other districts in Sindh — Sukkur, Larkana, Shirkarpur, Khairpur, Jacobabad and Ghotki, for example — routinely witness severe heat waves without facing the same death toll.

Despite soaring temperatures, there aren’t many heatwave-related casualties in rural Sindh. How do villagers manage to survive?

Official records of the Pakistan Meteorological Department’s (PMD) Sindh chapter show that Larkana recorded 51°C on June 08, 2014 and that on May 26, 2010, the historical city of Mohenjo Daro witnessed 53.3°C — the highest-ever recorded temperature in the country’s history. But even then, the list of casualties is never as high as that seen in Karachi last week.

Anthropologists and environmentalists say that adaptation to the extreme weather conditions by these rural communities, their weather-friendly diets, culture, architecture, forest cover in rural areas, availability of abundant water sources, and their indigenous knowledge about the surrounding environment helps them protect themselves from extreme weather.

“In rural areas, people are well aware about the weather conditions and in summer, when they feel there is a very hot day ahead, they will wake up early and try to finish their work before noon,” says social activist Paryal Mari from Shikarpur district. He believes that rural communities are mostly consuming freshly picked vegetables as well as lots of dairy products to protect themselves from the summer heat.

In the Thar Desert, for example, a special drink is made by mixing goat milk with cold water. “Thari people have their own instinct and they can ‘smell’ the severity of extreme summers many months before. They tend to start preparing for the sizzling days ahead as early as when winter ends,” says Bharumal Amrani, anthropologist and social activist. He explains that in March, before the summer has set in, the neem tree gets new flowers. People pick those flowers and grind them like thadal to make a drink.

The prevailing wisdom in villages across Sindh is to eat raw onions as salad with lunch, as they believe onions have anti-heat characteristics and eating raw onions will save them from sunstrokes.

Some rural communities also consume the seed of the paneer plant (biological name: Withania Coagulans); some seeds are added in two glasses of water and kept overnight in an earthen pot. In the morning, the mix is sieved with thin cloth and the water is then consumed.

Beside dietary considerations, Sindhi culture also lends itself to braving the weather. Anthropologists believe that the Sindhi topi (cap) and turban became part of Sindhi culture because of extreme heat across Sindh. By covering their heads with a cap or turban, people protect their heads from the direct impact of the scorching sun.

Then there is the culture of having lots of trees to help protect against blistering temperatures. There is either one huge tree in every village or in the courtyard of every home, the colonnade of which is much cooler than the air outside.

“Just imagine: it is extremely hot outside, but you have just spent two hours swimming in the canal and then you drink two glasses of lassi ... most people do that, and then take refuge under the cool colonnade of the tree, sometimes catch some sleep, and stay there till evening,” says Mari.

Traditional charpoys are usually used in most rural communities to sleep on — they are woven in such a way that air passes through their wooden frame, thus keeping whoever is resting on them cool and (relatively) fresh. Rural people also use another technique, in which they keep wet towels on their head when they go out for some work under the scorching sun.

Environmentalists believe that rural communities have great adaptation skills, and they acclimatise to the changing weather accordingly.

“Rural communities have changed themselves according to changing weather patterns: they change their diets, their working hours and even their everyday routines. This helps them to protect themselves from extreme weather events such as a heat wave,” says Nadeem Mirbahar, Ecosystem Management expert at International Union for Nature Conservation (IUCN).

Mirbahar argues that rural communities are more educated in environmental knowledge as compared to those living in mega cities such as Karachi. Talking about the deadly Karachi heat wave, he says that in the city, due to lot of vehicles, industries and urban architecture, there is the formation of what are known as “heat islands.”

“We need more indigenous trees with big canopies to weaken the impact of these heat islands. But in rural areas, there are still so many trees with big canopy spreads — these trees protect rural populations from the formation of heat islands,” says Mirbahar. “In future, we will face more extreme heat wave events. We need to start massive plantation drives of indigenous trees which provide great canopy spreads.”

Amar Guriro is Karachi based environmental journalist. He tweets @AmarGuriro

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, July 5th, 2015

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