ENVIRONMENT: IS JACOBABAD READY FOR CLIMATE CHANGE?

Published September 19, 2021
To meet the increased demand of water in hot weather, donkey carts deliver jerry cans of water to consumers Photos by Umair Ali
To meet the increased demand of water in hot weather, donkey carts deliver jerry cans of water to consumers Photos by Umair Ali

Jacobabad in Sindh is one of the hottest places on earth. So hot, in fact, that its record breaking temperatures have been attracting international media attention. The Telegraph recently ran a story reporting that Jacobabad is one of the only two places on earth to have officially passed a temperature threshold hotter than the human body can withstand. The other city is Ras al Khaimah in the UAE, the story goes on, quoting research conducted at Loughborough University.

Earlier, a 2019 Time magazine article had declared that Jacobabad may soon be “uninhabitable”. “Summer in Sindh province is no joke,” the article says. “People die.”

But in Pakistan, the issue only receives seasonal attention. As records break year after year, little is done to deal with the impact of climate change in the region.

According to the Pakistan Meteorological Department (PMD), on May 28, mercury sizzled at 50 degrees Celsius, making it the highest temperature recorded so far this year. Things were worse still last year in June when the temperatures rose to 51 degrees Celsius, shares Nadeem Faisal, one of the directors at PMD. Mercury jumped to 51 degrees Celsius in 2019 as well.

As per data shared by the PMD official, heatwaves typically start early in March and continue until September. As another unforgiving summer concludes, residents of Jacobabad will soon have temporary relief. But the government must invest in long-term solutions to address these issues, that will surely resurface next year.

BEATING THE HEAT

During peak summers, as Jacobabad sizzles, most residents treat it as business as usual. They rely on remedies such as drinking traditional drinks including thaadal (almond sherbet), lemonade, sugar cane juice and lassi. Others, with the means and family in other parts of the country, temporarily move away from Jacobabad when the temperatures get unbearable. “A lot of people move to Karachi, Quetta and Jamshoro in the summer to beat the heat,” Imran Odho, a former district council chairman in Jacobabad tells Eos.

Others simply avoid going out during the day. “Jacobabad’s geographical location and dry conditions contribute to high temperatures,” says Dr Qamaruz Zaman Chaudhry, a climate change expert and the lead author of Pakistan’s Climate Change Policy, released in 2012. “But, interestingly, a climate change adaptation is seen here as people start working early, avoid the midday sun and return outdoors in the afternoon.”

Jacobabad’s record-breaking summers have made it one of the hottest places on earth, attracting international media coverage and concern. Are those at home paying attention?

But staying indoors is not an option for everyone. Jacobabad is a rice growing area and rice is cultivated at the peak of summer. Rice seedlings are grown in nurseries in early May and transplanted from nurseries into the fields around June or early July, keeping farmworkers busy during the hottest time of the year. 

Sahib Khatoon, an elderly farmworker cannot afford to seek refuge from the sun in shaded areas for very long. “We start early and try to finish working by 11am,” she says, adding that the workers take a break around lunch time to eat and get some rest before returning to the fields by late afternoon. “This is how we escape the hottest part of the day.”

“From July onwards, as the rice crop starts maturing, the atmosphere becomes so hot that it is suffocating and difficult to breathe,” says Azhar Sarki, a journalist.

Cool drinks are a remedy for the sizzling summer heat Photos by Umair Ali
Cool drinks are a remedy for the sizzling summer heat Photos by Umair Ali

Like Khatoon, Janib Ali, a naanbai (baker) and his fellow worker manage their working hours to tackle the heat. “It is unbearable to work at the tandoor for seven to eight hours in one go,” says Ali, as he adjusts a pedestal fan to get more air. It is only 10am and he already looks exhausted with heat. “My fellow worker and I do three-hour shifts so one can rest when the other is working.”

Dr Chaudhry, who recently updated the climate change policy which is now pending government approval, explains that higher temperatures get worse with high humidity but Jacobabad records high temperatures with low humidity. “Its residents are used to dry weather and higher temperatures that have no or low humidity ratio,” he says. “Unlike Karachi, where in the 2015 heatwave, the temperature was a few degrees less than what was recorded in Jacobabad but many people died [because of the heat and humidity],” he adds.

WATERING DOWN THE IMPACT

The problems the area faces remain the same. As demand for water increases during heatwaves and the summer, the filtration plant here often stops working for one reason or another. “We need uninterrupted six-hour power supply at the plant to ensure water supply in the city’s main line,” says Imdad Ali, a worker at the plant. “Even though the plant has a dedicated independent feeder, certain influential people have started pilfering electricity from this feeder, causing an overburden and power breakdowns which lead to a break in water supply.”

To meet the demand, jerry cans of water — from privately built storages that are fed by groundwater wells — are delivered on donkey carts to consumers.

Abdul Ghaffar, a contractor has invested money in a deep-boring project for the extraction of water off Garhi Khero Road. “Groundwater is sweet here but brackish in other areas of Jacobabad,” he says. Ghaffar, who has spent around 20 to 30 thousand rupees against each bore, is confident that he will recover his investment quickly.

Issues such as inconsistent water and electricity supply are concerns that remain relevant year-round and across the country. But during Jacobabad’s sizzling summers, the impact of these issues is exacerbated.

Another issue that arises summer after summer is people suffering from heatstroke in Sindh.

But Dr Irshad Memon, Director General Health Services, Sindh, shares that no heatstroke-related deaths have been reported in Jacobabad over the past three years. “Heatstroke is a vague term,” he says. “Usually people don’t discuss the underlying causes of illness but claim that the death was because of a heatstroke.”

Indeed, there is no data available on heatstroke deaths. But according to a doctor, wishing to remain anonymous, the district health management information system has no column for heatstroke, so no dedicated data is collected.

Dr Bikha Ram of the Liaquat University of Medical and Health Sciences, Jamshoro, also doesn’t rule out the under-diagnosis of heatstroke cases. “No specific test is done for heatstroke cases,” he says. “An electrolytes test is necessary, but when patients arrive with high fever, they are only tested for malaria and typhoid.”

THE WAY FORWARD

The impacts of climate change are being felt around the world and plans are being generated to address the on-going crisis. Pakistan must also find ways to increase its preparedness.

Pakistan has ratified the Paris Agreement 2015. Dr Imran Khan, Director Governance and Policy at WWF-Pakistan, points out that the ‘developed’ world had made a commitment in the Paris Agreement to contribute 100 billion dollars annually for developing countries vulnerable to climate change, by 2020. “This financial assistance has not materialised yet.” he says, adding that the government must remind the ‘developed’ world of its commitment during the upcoming UN Climate Change Conference of Parties (COP-26), scheduled for later this year.

Securing funds is one part of the equation. The others are planning and implementation. The new climate change policy, awaiting approval, is a welcome step in that direction. We must move fast to ensure areas such as Jacobabad are ready to deal with the challenge at hand.

The writer is a staff reporter and can be reached at hussain.dawn@hotmail.com

Published in Dawn, EOS, September 19th, 2021

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