Karachi is at boiling point. Again.
These lines have flashed across the airwaves for the last three decades, with the peak of the heat index being observed in 1988, which also caused the first ever extreme heat wave condition in the country. In subsequent years, heat waves hit parts of Pakistan sporadically in 2002, May 2004, June 2007 and 2010.
Post 2010, the frequency of heat waves increased, with one being witnessed almost every year — in June 2015, May 2016, April 2017, May 2018, June 2019, May 2020, Jul 2021 and then again in April 2022. In fact, Karachi is currently experiencing what has become an extended heat wave that started last week.
What's ironic is that there is overwhelming evidence to suggest that these extreme weather events are related to human-induced climate change.
The rise and rise of mercury
On May 28, 2017, the hottest daytime temperature ever in Pakistan was recorded in Turbat at 54.0°C. The previous high of 53.5°C had been recorded in Mohenjo Daro not long ago on May 27, 2010.
Overall, climate change has caused a series of debilitating effects on the weather in Pakistan, with a rise in average annual temperatures, increase in heat wave days, rise in sea levels, and a decrease in winter and summer rainfall in the arid plains and coastal areas.
These severe weather conditions were most acutely felt between the months of May and June 2015, when an extended spell of high heat swept the Indian subcontinent, killing over 2,500 people in India and over 1,200 in Pakistan. This was also the worst heat wave in a decade for Pakistan, with the most deaths seen in the coastal city of Karachi. The city's morgues ran out of space for bodies and so did its cemeteries.
This year, the Pakistan Meteorological Department sounded the alarm for a heat wave in March — it's almost as if Karachi sees no spring anymore.
According to a recent study by the Karachi Urban Lab, titled Designed to Fail? Heat Governance in Urban South Asia: The Case of Karachi, Karachi’s temperature has increased by 2°C - 4ºC at night and 1.6°C during the day over the last 60 years — an increase that is substantially higher than the global temperature change.
Given these alarming statistics, it is crucial to examine Karachi’s urban development discourse and future visions of smartness, especially in relation to heat. To put it simply, Karachi's problem is not just with rising temperatures but also with rising humidity, due to which, for eight months of the year — from March to October, the city feels like a furnace.
For example, the Pakistan Metrological Department's data shows that during the 2015 heatwave, the temperature was ranged between 49°C to 50°C in Larkana and Jacobabad — much higher than Karachi — but there was no such deadly heatwave in these cities.
To examine the relationship between relative humidity and air temperature, we collected the maximum temperature in June from 2000 to 2021 (See figures) to measure the heat index [feel temperature].
Our findings show that in the years when the air temperature was high but the relative humidity was low, the city did not experience a heat wave, while in those years when relative humidity was high and the air temperature was not at its peak, the city witnessed heat waves. Therefore, Karachi’s climate cannot be examined without taking into account relative humidity.
Furthermore, the absence of wind, water scarcity, the urban heat island effect (UHI) and increase in built area — concretisation at the cost of green spaces and agricultural land — have made the situation far more complex. Thus, each passing year has made life more difficult for the citizens of Karachi.
Need for shade
So what do you do when the sun shows no mercy? You run for cover.
The problem is, it has become increasingly difficult to find cover — natural or synthetic — in the concrete jungle of Karachi. You see, Karachi is hot, not only because the of the aerial temperature, but also its humidity. The latter exacerbates the temperature you feel, making it even hotter.
Any form of shade or cover, whether they are trees or makeshift tarpaulin sheets tied overhead, helps reduce the feel temperature by an average of 4 to 5 degree Celsius. Urban planners and architects agree that having a dense cover of trees in city squares and public spaces can be useful for pedestrians and users of these spaces.
At the very least, the presence of various forms of shade can help reduce the heat effect of the sun. For the purpose of this report, we explored different areas of Karachi to determine the kinds of cover available to citizens who do not have the luxury of staying in air-conditioned offices and homes or even travel in air-conditioned vehicles.
Our findings were consistent with our hypothesis — Karachi's streets are cruel to its citizens, the majority of whom are part of the informal economy, which employs 72 per cent of the city's workforce. These include construction workers, garbage collectors, street hawkers and other daily wagers. The nature of their work is such that they have no choice but to face the direct heat of the sun.
In this scenario, the first priority should be to plant trees, which not only provide shade but also reduce environmental pollution, protect against flood damage, and prevent land erosion. Karachi's track record has, however, been the complete opposite.
In recent years, thousands of trees have been uprooted in the name of development projects and widening of roads in the city of lights. According to a 2017 survey by the National Forum for Environment and Health — a non-profit organisation — at least 47,000 trees were uprooted to make way for various development projects in the city in that year alone.
These included 17,000 trees uprooted for the construction of the Green Line Bus Rapid Transit System (BRTS) from Surjani Town to Gurmundar, another 12,000 trees for the expansion and reconstruction of University Road and yet another 4,000 for the expansion of the Super Highway and National Highway.
The same report states that 1,200 trees were chopped down to make more space available for the annual cattle market along the Super Highway. Furthermore, between 2011 and 2016, as many as 13,000 trees were chopped down in large residential areas of the city for various urban projects.
And the authorities' fight against shade wasn't just limited to trees. In the anti-encroachment operations undertaken on the Supreme Court's orders in 2018, the Karachi Metropolitan Corporation (KMC) removed 7,500 makeshift shades from Saddar and its surrounding areas alone — a process that continues to date. In January earlier this year for example, several makeshift shades were removed in district South of the city.
Whenever the Met Department sounds the alarms for an impending heat wave, health experts remind citizens to stay cool by avoiding direct sunlight and drinking more water. In Karachi, however, the increased consumption of water is also no less than a luxury much like the presence of shady shots.
Despite heat waves becoming an annual occurrence now, authorities have yet to qualify them in the context of a disaster. Furthermore, first responders and ambulance service providers are also not included in the heat-management plan.
Herein lies the predicament: instead of devising long-term plans to mitigate the effects of the heat, authorities appear to be warning residents to stay indoors. In a city where the vast majority is involved in the informal economy and 65 per cent of the population is forced to live in informal settlements, living 'at home' is not an option that is available to all.
The daily-wager will have to venture out to make a living. Water has become a precious commodity. And with bad planning and anti-poor law enforcement, so has shade. Instead of creating more shady areas for the common man to take some respite from the sun, the city's authorities have actively destroyed them. The roads may have widened, but the development has come at the cost of trees.
On the one hand, authorities recognise that shady and green spaces are essential to keep the city cool, while on the other, makeshift shades are removed as encroachments. Similarly, efforts are being made to improve the landscaping in several parks across Karachi. Even in these manicured havens, shade or trees are given little thought.
There was a time when large umbrellas were erected in some parks, but they are now a thing of the past. Similarly, it was a common sight for people to be resting under trees in said parks. Now, they too are a rarity.
What Karachi urgently needs is shade. Unless that happens, we will likely see a repeat of the events of 2015 with increasing frequency over the next few years.