The concrete mouth of 5-star Chowrangi swallows us into North Nazimabad, Karachi's central district. We’re speeding through a draft of hot air billowing around us from what feels like a tandoor.
This Tandoor Effect though is not a physical tandoor; it's hot and dry air rushing in from the Balochistan desert plains as the monsoon system develops – a natural process – but aggravated by the urban heat island (UHI) effect.
The sun is baking our exposed skin, my toes and his arms. Hot air brushes against my face, and into my nostrils. I know he can feel the heat too; he keeps shifting the wet towel placed around his neck – a rudimentary precaution to combat heat exhaustion during work as a captain on a ride-hailing app.
I glance at my temperature meter: 42.1 degree Celsius it reads as the black digits stare out at me in static certainty. “Take the road from this side,” I shout out directions over the jarring noise of traffic, their silencers spitting out carbon dioxide and greenhouse gases (GHGs).
We’re parallel to the concrete promise called the Green Line. “A few more minutes,” I say to myself, mustering whatever shreds of patience I can generate till I reach my destination. Is this going to be the new normal; heatwaves each time the monsoon develops and dissipates? I hope to life, it isn’t.
I’m just a quarter of my existence into living and an aggravated heatwave brought on by human activities is a tiring thought. But human-induced climate change is here and whether I, whether we, like it or not, it will get hotter. It already has.
Naseeb Khan combs his hair inside a labour commune. “The electricity has been out since the last two days,” he says wearily, dark circles around his eyes. Naseeb stands in one corner while his roommate is lying on a floor mat on the other side. He fans himself, rigorously. Both are drenched in sweat and the room forces my shirt to mimic their sweat patches.
On our left is a tiny rectangular opening that functions as a vent for the 120-square feet of space. Naseeb continues, “I finish my shift by 2am but I’m unable to sleep. Our room remains warm late into the night.” He has to share the sleeping quarter with as many as eight men at a time.
This labour commune is located inside Ilyas Goth and is a largely working-class neighbourhood. Many residents find work in and around Landhi and Korangi’s industrial zones. It's an unplanned settlement evidenced by the tight and narrow alleyways, un-demarcated walking and haphazard living spaces with bad building design-codes. As family size and populations expanded, so did the use of concrete-based designs for rooftops and cheaper alternatives such as asbestos sheets.
On the second day of this heatwave, Kulsoom – mother to four children – is preparing to leave for her father’s place, a few streets behind us. We’re inside Mowach Goth, a formalised settlement south of Baldia Town. Earlier in the week, her father fell ill during the same heatwave. It is now part of her routine to send her children to her father’s residence and care for the family.
“We don’t have electricity at this time, and my father’s place has cooling, I thought it best to send them during the day,” she says tiredly while packing a lunch of rotis and a vegetable curry in their kitchen. An asbestos sheet reinforced with concrete blocks as weight acts as the roof. The temperature metre at this stage reads out a 42°C inside the kitchen. Heat radiates around us.
“I do my cooking during the morning since it is cooler at that time, and we spray water on our courtyard, twice a day to help keep the ground cool.” “Doesn’t that deplete your water storage?” I ask. “It does,” she continues. “We order a tanker that costs us Rs2,200 and generally lasts a month. During heatwaves we use more water to bathe and keep cool. The same tanker now lasts about 12 days.” Collectively, Kulsoom and her husband bring in an income of Rs16,000 a month – the expense on water to keep cool pilfering through any dreams for saving.
Shakeel Ahmad’s 80-square yard home logs a sweltering 41°C against Pakistan Meteorological Department's (PMD) reading of 45°C. The fan is switched off because Shakeel believes it increases the ambient room temperature. In order to help keep cool, he has hung a wet cloth on an open window, taking advantage of the light sea breeze. That helps, but not completely.
His son, Mudassir, aged 10 years, suffered a bout of heat exhaustion in the first heatwave (late May 2018) despite his parent’s care to prevent sun exposure. Shakeel knew what to do in such an emergency – bathing him, applying wet wraps and feeding powdered juices. “He’s had a recurring fever since then.”
Thankfully (morbidly or not), the countless churning out of bodies during the 2015 heatwave propelled the government’s disaster management machinery into action. Since then, a mass campaign to prevent heatstroke and heat exhaustion enabled Mudassir’s care-givers to identify the symptoms and act.
While walking through the gullies, children play outside in the shadows, while women sit on the ledge that marks the entrance to their homes. Some fanning themselves, others patiently sewing patterns. Another walks to a tap on a wall outside the community mosque and begins to fill an empty gallon with water.
There is no electricity in this block. A light breeze blows but doesn’t make much of a difference – everyone can feel the heat surrounding us like an unwanted thermal blanket. A lone neem tree grows outside an empty plot at the end of the street. Standing some 20-feet tall, it is shade to a home beside it.
A few minutes of some tired walking, I’m at Abdul Wahab’s home. An olive coloured cloth hangs to symbolise an entrance. He has just come home from his job as the school-help. Sweat beads dot his face and drench his shalwar kameez. The electricity has just gotten back and he sits down to rest, while his wife gets him water. For him and his family, the heat takes a collective toll on comfort and quality of life.
“During the heat, I can’t sit or stand or talk… Becheni hoti hai.” If the heat becomes unbearable, Wahab and his family of four individuals sit near or beside the underground water tank; the perception being that it is cooler around that spot. Frequent bathing routines helps to dampen the becheni. To keep up with expenses on water usage, his wife is stitching kadraahi – patterns for Balochi dresses.
This disorder of urban morphology, geometry and wind-flow barriers collectively have a multi-dimensional impact on micro-climates, a frequent pattern for about 62 per cent of the city that has primarily depended and invested heavily in materials that act as heat-sinks, virtually birthing UHIs into a constant presence.
These materials include concrete (used in housing and major construction projects), asbestos sheets (cheap to use as a basic roof) and dark asphalt (all of which have lower levels of reflecting solar radiation).
Each of these materials have larger heat retaining capacities. Additionally, urban densification, urban sprawl and associated anthropogenic activities contribute to the expanse, effect and longevity of UHIs. A continued existence inside this heated troposphere becomes a health risk.
The human body may be able to sweat it out during a heatwave, but considering maximum temperature and relative humidity in the equation, the heat experienced can skyrocket. In a report published by the Ministry of Climate Change in July 2015, Karachiites experienced a sustained heat index of more than 50°C through 17th to 23rd June, reaching its maximum on the 20th, where the maximum air temperature was recorded at 44.8°C and a heat index calculated at 66.1°C.
At 40°C, the human body begins to fail in thermoregulation and major organs begin to shut down; hyperthermia sets in and is fatal if emergency medical assistance isn’t administered, immediately.
In a study, documenting a “gap” in access to energy (electrification) for space-cooling technology units in the Global South, residents in low-income neighbourhoods face larger heat stress:
“With only 8% of the 2.8 billion people living in the hottest regions of the world possessing air-conditioning (AC), access to cooling is a major equity issue. Typically the most affluent in society can afford AC, but it is often the aged and poor who are most vulnerable to heat stress, particularly in climates with hot summers and in urban areas. In tropics and sub-tropics, AC is also necessary to maintain a comfortable sleep environment, important for allowing the body to recover between hot days. More broadly, gaps in access to modern energy and technologies, poor housing design quality, and climate change-related heatwaves exacerbate this issue, by increasing the risk of heat-related mortality in many developing countries.”
The June 2015 heatwave is a prime example of what can happen when unpredictable energy demands increase during extended spells of heatwaves. One of the reasons noted in the National Electric Power Regulatory Authority’s decision to fine the city’s electric utility is “that its understanding on overloading of transformers is based on average conditions prevailing in the grid.”
The same decision notes that while peak demand increased to over 3,000 megawatt during June 2015, the utility was able to pump out around 2475 MW; the rest was managed via segmented load shed, a policy the regulatory authority has criticised, saying “…the failure of the (utility) to recognize the extreme difficulties, the consumers of so called ‘high loss areas’ were facing cannot be justified.”
As part of the Heat Wave Management Plan 2017, issued by Karachi Metropolitan Corporation, an understanding has been reached. Based on PMD’s heatwave alerts, the utility is required to review plans and decrease or stop load shedding.
If we speak about climate change mitigation considering these scenarios, what can we do? Plant more trees, if we go by the popularised notion to help dissipate heat. But is there any space left?
This August, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published a draft report recommending that we revisit our relationship to the land we inhabit in the context of anthropogenic activities and climate change. In the background of reducing GHG emissions from all sectors, the report sheds light on land management, specifically in relation to urbanisation and its proper usage in tackling climate change-induced weather events, including intensified UHIs brought on by future warming.
Pakistan’s urbanisation rate stands at 2.77pc with 50pc of the population projected to reside in urban agglomerations by 2047. Karachi’s population is scheduled to touch 20 million by 2030 (unofficial estimates from the 2017 census already tag Karachi’s population in that bracket).
More migrations to cities mean greater urbanisation and pressure to convert non-urban land to urbanised landscapes, including investments in built-environments that haven’t been reformed (as yet) to include mitigation measures for UHI impacts. This forces a large chunk of the population to undergo variable and disproportionate forms of heat stress.
“In the last 30-40 years, we’ve turned the city into a concrete jungle and now, there’s no empty space,” says Muhammad Toheed, an urban planner and researcher at Karachi Urban Lab, IBA. “Cement and manufacturing companies [involved in construction] will need to re-examine the materials they use and differentiate between what is climate change-exacerbating and what is climate change-proof and find alternatives and look at examples in other countries,” he says frankly over the audible hum of the air conditioner.
It is late September and Karachiites are braving this year’s tail end of the wet phase of the monsoon season. Consequently, a heatwave alert has been notified by the PMD. Outside our little silo, the temperature on the asphalt road reads a sizzle of 48°C.
Toheed continues: “The second is how do we [develop] building and layout plans, and design to accommodate for our local realities, how and what can be changed? A rather difficult question to ask considering Karachi’s recent history of fragmented and unplanned development with inequitable change in land use, specifically the issue of densification and urban sprawl.
Densities as high as 4,500 persons per hectare have been documented. Any form of urbanisation increases the mean annual surface air temperature in cities and their surroundings ranging from 0.19°C to 2.60°C (due to UHIs). This difference in temperature is more pronounced at night than during the day.
In Karachi’s context, the issue of inequitable densification combined with improper zoning regulations are contributing towards UHI, heat stress and associated stressors that arrive with improper and unplanned densification. Increased vehicular flow escalates urban air pollution that increases the incidence of respiratory diseases, including asthma.
“If you look at Nazimabad today, the current densification trend is to go 12 stories, against a zoning rule that allows a maximum of five stories. When this increases population density, which it will, are we looking at the heat impacts as well?” questions Toheed.
“What about planning around concrete, don’t we have solutions?” I ask him. “How can we? We don’t have data to quantify Karachi’s total concrete density. Zoning and building control authorities don’t have that kind of info.”
Dr Noman Ahmed, dean of architecture and planning at NED University, adds in as well. “The connecting densities to major city arteries have changed. Most of the transport arteries we used to have were low to medium density; now they have been converted into medium to high density zones.”
I’m inside his air-conditioned office taking notes. The heat outside is foreboding. “Let’s look at Shahra-i-Faisal, Tariq Road and Shahra-i-Quaideen. All have allowed multiple storied construction without necessarily revising the other standards for physical planning and that has caused an enormous impact on the generation of UHIs effects.
"Shahra-i-Faisal at the moment has many spacious corners, but the building permits that are issued and realised in the next four to five years will transform the artery into a tunnel-like corridor. Even if the centre medians are used for increasing green cover, the overall concrete-to-green ratio would be low.
"On roads that have no medians such as I.I. Chundrigar Road and M.A. Jinnah Road, [and] with the construction of the Green Line in the latter case, has reduced opportunities for plantation along the corridor.”
This raises further questions about harmonising the built-environment to combat extreme heat events: retaining public spaces and green medians versus concrete and asphalt for development and economic growth.
It’s around 5pm on the busy intersection at Garden and Commissariat Road. I’m on the pavement on the southwest corner bounded by two major hospitals on both sides of the road. The concrete and asphalt jungles are beginning to cool down from the heatwave – this one reaching a maximum of 40°C.
The air is thick with the smell of motor vehicle exhaust and an air conditioner unit jutting out on the pedestrian pathway spits out hot and humid air. A motorcycle with packed goods on the backseat startles and whizzes past me turning left towards Gul Plaza.
Patients move between the hospitals, dodging oncoming traffic, cautiously navigating a path through the row of parked motorcycles around the pharmacies and diagnostic labs. Rickshaws clamour for parking space around the entrance and corners of the hospital, in expectance to take on potential passengers.
Pedestrians stand on the pavement, waiting; others drinking a glass of sugarcane juice to beat the heat. Traffic warden Arshad authoritatively shoos the rickshaws away with his e-ticket machine in hand. He is helpless in the face of motorcyclists, driving the wrong way. “As part of our traffic management strategy, we’ve blocked the entrance of cars from the link road adjacent to Gul Plaza, but people continue to violate basic rules.”
The plaza in question is a low- to middle-income shopping mall. On weekends, interested families descend here, for the apparently cheap consumer goods imported from China. Blocking vehicles that take on more road space allows the police to focus on the heavy influx of vehicular movement to and from the busy commercial centre of Saddar’s car, cellphone and consumer electronic markets to the western and northern parts of the city.
“Everyone is in a hurry to get somewhere,” he says while looking on at the car-lift that has arrived to impound a car parked where we stand at the corner. The stress of the job increases during a heatwave. “It is already hot and when commuters don’t follow the rules, it causes more problems,” he complains. “During the middle of my shift, I develop a headache and the smoke causes irritability.” Arshad hasn’t seen a doctor for his headache.
A lack of contextual understanding of spaces such as these contributes to spatial disorders, and are an additional contribution to anthropogenic causes related to UHIs in dense spaces like this intersection that see heavy vehicular movement.
“Yes, we should be looking into this sector because it exists on a large scale. Those households that had one car, 10 years ago, now own three cars. If life was managed with one motorcycle, now there is one car and a motorcycle,” says Dr Noman. In proportion to the rise of autonomous transport, public modes of commuting have dropped.
“Buses and minibuses have declined, so has the use of bicycles. The biggest change in our current lifestyle is when my generation would bicycle to school. My children are not doing the same. At that time, it was a standard and accepted mode to commute. Everyone would use one, or we would go in the school bus.
"Today, it is a standard to pick and drop children in a vehicle. On one end, it shows that school transport has collapsed or is unreliable. The other factor is that the distance between homes to the relevant school has increased.”
He makes reference to the time when schools were nearby and a person would volunteer to pick and drop the children. “This is something that is unheard of today. If we wanted, we could devise carpooling solutions where the school categorises students living in a 1km radius of each other and a car volunteers to pick and drop them. These might be low-cost solutions, but they’re intelligent ones.”
Reducing car and heavy vehicle usage reduces GHGs that contribute to UHIs. Dr Noman continues: “The other point is to strictly enforce parking and flow regimes that will limit the unnecessary flow and movement of cars into major commercial districts and other areas. One way to reduce congestion is to announce car-free days on certain days (odd/even number system) or limit their entry into certain specific spaces. Cities like New Delhi are using such strategies to combat their problems with air pollution.”
A common theme runs through them: a preference and promotion for car-friendly architecture as a means of commuting within the city. Signal-free corridors with flyovers, underpasses and bridges have mushroomed faster than the existing tree cover in the city in the span of 20 years. Such architecture adds to the collective heat absorbed by concrete and asphalt, the very materials used for our growth in GDP. More road surfaces diminishe the land’s ability to absorb rainwater.
“We don’t have any concept of kachi mitti, we let the surface water flow away. The same water can sink and recharge our aquifers and contribute to evapotranspiration,” Toheed says to me.
Related: Green spaces and governance
Since they exist in the public space, such structures and materials add to ambient-thermal discomfort, especially for pedestrians. A loiter around Schon Circle gives a better idea. Tree cover is spotty providing shade for passengers as they wait at the bus stop, but as you move towards the four-lane wide road, it sizzle. It feels like fire walking.
But do pedestrian walkways even exist in this city?
Toheed explains with this thought for perspective: “If I wanted to go from Metropole Hotel to Jinnah Hospital by foot, I wouldn’t be able to. There is no safe [shaded] and continued connectivity between the pedestrian walkways. You’ll have to use the road and face the traffic at different points.” To add to this inequity, inattention in design for inclusive walkways is another concern altogether.
Shahzad Ghanchi, a wheel-chair user hailing from Baldia Town, explains: “None of the footpaths I’ve wheeled on have a ramp to aid with mobility and commute. We have to rely on people’s sympathies when asking for help.” Ease of access becomes a larger point of criticism considering that most pedestrian pathways are either broken or with pot holes or, in other cases, an obstacle course between thelas and stalls or utility infrastructure.
“What do you do when there’s a heatwave?” I ask. “I plan my day after receiving news alerts about a heatwave warning through my smartphone or through word of mouth. I take extra precautions and plan my day accordingly; usually I take an umbrella to act as shade.”
Away from the madness of the city’s centres, Karachi’s battle with UHIs is intensifying. An urban-sprawl is creeping into what was once seen as Karachi Rural. Coined as “world-class cities”, similar design typologies have been used: car-friendly architecture with expansive multi-lane asphalt roads. A large part of the sprawl has embowelled and gouged the land and replaced it with vast concrete erections, some of them warped representations of world-wonders surrounded by trimmed grass lawns.
“These lands were earmarked as Karachi’s sub-urban belt to be used for agricultural purposes. There was a lot of space for growing orchids, along with crops and crop rotations as well as pastoral farming. Within that diversity, micro-climates were better. With the advent of [the] housing societies, and subsequent development, land use has changed. The biggest impact is that regeneration is no longer possible. Because Bahria Town and DHA will be there forever,” says Dr Noman in a somber tone.
“What we should now do is ‘impactive’ land use planning and control of the remaining lands, so that they aren’t disturbed. And land for agricultural purposes should be strictly held.”
The IPCC recommends the same. They call it Urban Green Infrastructure. Adding green elements (this can be street trees, green corridors, roofs/walls/built-environments, public parks and forests, urban agriculture, vertical farms) can counteract the impacts of UHIs. Conversely, planning for blue infrastructure (water bodies, lakes and streams) are acclaimed too.
The impact of such planning allows for the creation of co-benefits. A case in point is urban agriculture in the urban centres and peri-urban areas that allow cities to be food secure, reduce pressure on rural croplands and subsequent land degradation and reconnect urban populations to food production systems counteracting the homogenisation of food options.
But none of these are possible without a careful examination of how we plan for land around UHIs and nature-based solutions. "Karachi is not homogenous in terms of urban development and land use. It varies from a highly congested, old city with mixed commercial, residential and industrial activity, with little green areas and narrow streets; to high-end low density and low height residential areas with good enough green spaces. Each of the 18 towns is different and each demands a tailored strategy,” notes the Karachi Heatwave Management Plan.
In other words, tailored strategies or solutions require a local context keeping in mind the complex and chaotic truths of the citizens who use these spaces. Given the urban geometry, density and intense competition for space, a ground-up approach is the best policy.
“Our biggest success story in recent memory was the revitalisation of amenity parks kick-started by the former City Nazim Naimatullah Khan and carried on by Mustafa Kamal,” says Dr Noman. “Some 11,000 small or big parks and green belts were revitalised including community parks that were maintained by them and [institutionally] facilitated by the Union Councilors. Meaning, trees were replanted and 25-30-year-old amenity spaces were revitalised. Without an empowered local government, [all of] this is not possible.”
Back in North Nazimbad, our ride has ended and I’m relieved to arrive at my destination. Everything around us feels like it is sizzling. The hot and dry wind rustles through a neighbouring neem tree. After I’ve completed our transaction, the captain asks me if I had water. On instinct, I reach out for my flask and hand it over to him.
He parks his motorcycle and looks in either direction. A family stands several feet ahead of us. The captain makes his way towards a dormant and locked french fries stall and sits on his feet, the stall hiding him, and he drinks.
His cellphone is strapped to the motorcycle’s tank. It beeps. Screwing the cup back on the flask, I asked him, “Why did you do that? “It is Ramzan,” he says and hops back on the two-wheeler; the app has sent details to pick a new passenger.
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