ANEESA Abdul Sattar knows how to keep cool to reduce thermal stress — drink plenty of water and bathe. Yet both these measures are beyond her. She lives in that quarter of Lyari, in Karachi, where unannounced power outages for up to 10 hours are a norm. Just 15 to 20 minutes of water supply at the most, and that too on alternate days, but with no electricity during that time, means there is no water for her household to keep cool. Rationing water to make it last means bathing is a luxury.
The Met department has warned of scorching temperatures exceeding 40 degrees Celsius in Karachi, and up to 50°C in some parts of Sindh in the days ahead.
An important lesson learnt during the deadly June 2015 heatwave was how critical power and water were to keeping people cool. Simply plunging hands and feet into cool water can reduce thermal strain, say public health experts. But for many living in Karachi’s low-income settlements, even that is a luxury.
Sweltering heat means a rising demand for drinking water to keep hydrated. This puts pressure on sanitation and hygiene services. Conversely, more demand on these services increases their disruption at a time when they are most needed.
Experts have stressed the importance of WASH.
With increased demand, there is a danger of biological contamination of water as well. Hotter temperatures increase multiplication of bacterial and fungal microorganisms, especially naegleria, according to infectious disease specialist Dr Naseem Salahuddin. That is why public authorities must ensure the water supply and sanitation infrastructure undergoes regular maintenance as high temperatures can damage concrete infrastructure.
While water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) are critical to citizens’ well-being on any day, these become even more important during a health crisis, says urban planner Dr Nausheen Anwar, director at the Karachi Urban Lab. And that is precisely why, says water expert Basharat Saeed, heatwaves were another reminder that climate change needs to be taken seriously. Good water services should be an important part of devising a heatwave management plan. However, Dr Anwar finds the government’s attempts to incorporate heat-risk mitigation into urban planning to be feeble, mainly due to limited resources, and says that provincial and local budgets spending on heat-risk mitigation over the past five years has been negligible.
Luckily for citizens, NGOs have taken it upon themselves to do what is clearly the government’s task. For example, since 2015, every year the Edhi Foundation prepares for a heatwave in Karachi by ensuring there is a cool and ventilated sitting area with ample drinking water, hand towels and oral rehydrating salts, commonly known as ORS, at all six of its centres. Its ambulances with 25 trained staff are on standby to provide first aid to people suffering from heatstroke so there is no need to rush them to the hospitals.
The Al Khidmat Foundation, the charitable wing of Jamaat-i-Islami, sets up camps at 52 points in Karachi, where they already have filter plants, to provide drinking water, ORS and moist hand towels to passersby. There are many small and big organisations doing the same to help people remain hydrated across Sindh.
But there have to be longer-term solutions to dealing with the crisis. The government must not only recognise the intrinsic link between climate and the water sector, which continues to remain compartmentalised, it should also not hide behind the excuse that water is scarce or that it lacks the resources to ensure its availability.
Countries with much less water have learnt to survive by managing the resource judiciously. For example, public water utilities in water-scarce African countries have developed manuals on the management of droughts, says Saeed. With SOPs in place, the authorities know when to ration water and when to give information to the public and use effective messaging about water conservation. Pakistan can learn and emulate.
It will also require some out-of-the-box thinking — for example, finding intelligent ways to recycle grey water from domestic use or exploring the concept of dry latrines and dry car washes, says Dr Noman Ahmed, dean of the Architecture and Management Sciences at Karachi’s NED University.
Architect Yasmeen Lari has practically shown through her Rahguzar Walking Street (close to Karachi’s Denso Hall library) that outsmarting aggressive climate events can be done by incorporating nature-based solutions using permeable low carbon terracotta tiles as pavers in the pedestrian zone and growing urban forests within the enclave.
But managing heatwaves requires advance planning by the relevant authorities, says WaterAid country director Arif Jabbar Khan. For starters, and at least for Karachi, the government can dust off the 2017 Karachi Heatwave Management Plan and implement it to protect people from heat stress.
Published in Dawn, May 14th, 2022