KARACHI has finally received some respite from simmering temperatures that prevailed over it during the past few days.
The city responded proactively to the extreme weather condition with Met department issuing timely alerts along with increased official preparedness for emergency situations.
But the heatwave still took its toll with more than sixty fatalities reported across the city by Edhi Foundation.
The government has contested the death toll claiming that many of the deaths were due to ‘underlying conditions’. The outgoing government can address these underlying conditions during its last week in office, and prevent deaths if the heatwave was to recur again during the election campaign.
There are still capacity and knowledge gaps in the city’s response mechanism for extreme heat episodes.
With another ‘severe’ heatwave forecasted in the coming week, there is urgent need to strengthen disaster response mechanisms and plug the existing gaps.
Drawing on recommendations from the heatwave management plan adopted by Karachi city along with some global best practices, we have identified five priority actions that the city can undertake before the interim government sworn in.
Colour coding for heatwave alerts
The Pakistan Meteorological department deserves credit for timely and accurate forecasting for heatwaves in recent past. But making the alerts end-user friendly can contribute towards increasing the impact and efficacy of such warning.
Karachi heatwave management plan developed a system for colour coded heatwave alerts (red, orange, yellow) with associated triggers and institutional protocols to enable swift response and accountability.
Such warning system enables easier understanding for general public as a red alert will trigger much stronger response as opposed to some statistics on ambient temperatures and humidity.
A case in point is the hurricane warning system that relies on assigning categories to each storm without disseminating the details of meteorological variables which have little value for end-user.
Enhanced coordination between stakeholders
Heatwave presents a challenge for coordination especially in developing countries where typically institutions work in silos.
The fact that death toll from heatwaves in Karachi are released by philanthropic foundations as opposed to disaster management authorities also speaks volume about the scale of coordination challenge.
Based on the recommendation of Karachi heatwave management plan, an emergency coordination committee was notified last year which comprised all relevant city authorities along with representatives of CSOs/NGOs.
This committee can serve as an important platform for leveraging strengths and capacities of various departments in a coordinated manner.
Absence of institutionalised coordination between stakeholders will eventually lead towards duplication of efforts and gaps in response.
Leveraging support from private sector
Karachi is the business hub of Pakistan with a vibrant and informed private sector community that is deeply committed to the city.
Facilitating informed engagement of private sector in heatwave response is imperative to protect the expansive metropolis.
The city has already witnessed great philanthropy and social responsibility from private sector during previous heatwave episodes but such interventions remain isolated and scattered.
There is a need for city government to methodically engage support from private sector so that it complements and bolsters pre-existing disaster response efforts.
Identification of hotspots
Heatwave impacts are differentiated across city depending upon demographics, socio-economic conditions and land use characteristics.
Hence some poor and congested neighborhoods are much more vulnerable to extreme heat impacts than others.
The existing Karachi heatwave management plan attempted to identify such hotspots using GIS based proxy methods.
The reason is that city prevention and response efforts should be focused on hotspots to create maximum impact.
Vehicle mounted weather stations along with remotely sensed land use data provide an economical and efficient tool for identification of hotspots within a city.
A similar exercise was recently conducted in various cities of South Asia including Faisalabad as part of a regional research project on climate change impacts.
There is a need to conduct a comprehensive hotspot mapping exercise in Karachi as well to guide city response towards extreme heat events.
Sustainable urban planning and land use management When it comes to heatwaves, our rudimentary and skewed development priorities for urban centers are coming back to haunt us in many ways.
Concrete and asphalt based built environments contribute to keeping urban localities several degrees hotter than surrounding non-urbanised areas. This Urban Heat Island (UHI) effect is a major culprit behind blistering weather conditions that our urban centers are experiencing with alarming regularity.
One of the simplest solutions to reducing the urban heat island effect is to provide more shade, with trees and other vegetation.
Regrettably, green belts and parks are often the first victim of land-grabbing mafias, China-cutting and development projects.
Over the years, this relentless destruction of trees and vegetation has transformed our cities into barren concrete jungles.
The urban development itself has also been inequitable, congested and suffocating, often leaving no ventilation zones for neighborhoods and houses.
Hence the momentum generated by heatwave emergency should be channelised to transition towards sustainable urban planning and land use management in Karachi city.
This single act can do wonders to reduce the heat vulnerability of the city and create several other co-benefits.
Ali Tauqeer Sheikh is CEO while Bilal Khalid is coordinator Climate Change Programme at the Islamabad-based think tank LEAD Pakistan.
Published in Dawn, May 28th, 2018