The new normal


Ali Tauqeer Sheikh is CEO and Bilal Khalid is coordinator, climate change programme, at the Islamabad-based think tank LEAD Pakistan.
Ali Tauqeer Sheikh is CEO and Bilal Khalid is coordinator, climate change programme, at the Islamabad-based think tank LEAD Pakistan.

THE recent heatwave warning for Karachi has brought back sad memories of the deadly summer of 2015. On Friday, the Pakistan Meteorological Department predicted that “very hot weather will continue to prevail in Karachi for the next five to six days with day temperatures ranging from 40 degrees Celsius to 43°C”. With more than one heatwave alert issued, Pakistan’s largest metropolis seems set for another scorching season.

A severe, unprecedented heatwave had struck southern Pakistan in June 2015. It lasted for a week and caused almost 2,000 casualties as a result of various heat-related ailments such as dehydration and heatstroke. Karachi bore the brunt of the crisis with more than 1,000 fatalities reported from various areas of the city. At the peak of the heatwave, the number of corpses exceeded local capacities for storage or burial, as emergency efforts proved insufficient to save lives.

The events preceding and during the heatwave crisis of 2015 highlighted severe challenges for disaster response, early warning and urban planning in Karachi which contributed to the high death toll. The absence of triggers for early warning, institutional roles and responsibilities along with emergency protocols were some factors compounding the crisis.

More importantly, land-use changes, socioeconomic disparities and the lack of a heatwave management system also emerged as key ingredients contributing to vulnerability in the face of extreme heat events. Resultantly, despite predictions of a heatwave, the death toll continued to rise while frantic relief efforts by the city administration proved futile.

Karachi can expect heatwaves to increase in the coming years.

Heatwaves are a multi-causal phenomenon where meteorological and socioeconomic factors interact to produce often fatal outcomes. Unfortunately, Pakistan’s risk exposure to both these components is rapidly escalating under the rising impacts of climate change and unplanned urbanisation. Mushrooming informal settlements on the peripheries of our major cities coupled with the increasing frequency of extreme weather events means that recurrence of tragedies such as the 2015 heatwave are more likely than ever before.

Based on global experiences, deaths from heatwaves are considered ‘preventable’ as meteorological events alone are unlikely to be responsible for the mass-scale fatalities which usually occur in built environments. Hence, there is a need to make our cities resilient against extreme heat events which are set to increase in frequency and intensity over the coming years and decades.

Recognising the scale of this threat, Karachi, under the leadership of commissioner’s office, embarked on developing a comprehensive heatwave management plan after the 2015 crisis. The objective was to mitigate health risks from extreme heat events and avoid similar tragedies in future. Based on global best practices from heatwave management experiences in cities like Paris and Ahmadabad, the authors of this article led a team of international experts to help plan and streamline institutional roles and responsibilities and develop operating procedures and protocols.

Engaging the city’s private sector and philanthropists, hospitals and ambulance services, research universities, think tanks, media, civil society organisations and provincial government departments such as the provincial disaster management authorities, health, etc, the Karachi Heatwave Manage­ment Plan was developed. Accepted by the Sindh government, the plan contains a blueprint on how to respond to disaster events in a coordinated manner.

The commissioner’s office was selected as custodian of the plan because of the convening and leveraging power it has traditionally enjoyed. The belief was that they would have the ability to mobilise diverse stakeholders to take quick action. The question is, has Karachi moved an inch, or are we still at the threshold of deaths that can be prevented?

It is the implementation phase that presents the real challenge for Karachi which is in need of champions to institutionalise heatwave management in city governance. The city authorities cannot afford to falter and allow anymore preventable deaths from extreme heat episodes. The upcoming election season augurs a divergence of political agendas, but disaster prevention is unlikely to merit any serious attention. However, we should not let political expediencies serve as an excuse to leave the population of Karachi at the mercy of the summer season.

The city authorities must immediately convene and rally relevant stakeholders to operationalise the heatwave management plan in letter and spirit. With the rising impacts of climate change and urbanisation, heatwave events present a new reality that Pakistan’s cities must learn to live with.

Ali Tauqeer Sheikh is CEO and Bilal Khalid is coordinator, climate change programme, at the Islamabad-based think tank LEAD Pakistan.

Published in Dawn, May 22nd, 2018