JACOBABAD: Heavily pregnant Sonari toils under the burning sun in fields dotted with bright yellow melons in Jacobabad, which last month became the hottest city on Earth.
Her 17-year-old neighbour Waderi, who gave birth a few weeks ago, is back working in temperatures that can exceed 50 Celsius (122 Fahrenheit), with her newborn lying on a blanket in the shade nearby so she can feed him when he cries.
“When the heat is coming and we’re pregnant, we feel stressed,” said Sonari, who is in her mid-20s.
These women in southern Pakistan and millions like them around the world are at the searing edge of climate change.
Pregnant women exposed to heat for prolonged periods of time have a higher risk of suffering complications, an analysis of 70 studies conducted since the mid-1990s on the issue found.
Pregnant women exposed to heat for longer periods at higher risk of complications, studies show
For every 1 degree Celsius in temperature rise, the number of stillbirths and premature deliveries increases by about 5 per cent, according to the meta-analysis Global Consortium on Climate and Health Education at Columbia University, which was carried out by several research institutions globally and published in the British Medical Journal in September 2020.
Cecilia Sorensen, director of the Global Consortium on Climate and Health Education at Columbia University, said the unfolding impact of global warming on the health of women was “highly underdocumented”, partly because extreme heat tended to exacerbate other conditions.
“We’re not associating health impacts on women and often times it’s because we’re not collecting data on it,” she said. “And often women in poverty are not seeking medical care.” “Heat is a super big deal for pregnant women.” Women are especially vulnerable to rising temperatures in poor countries on the frontlines of climate change because many have little choice but to work through their pregnancies and soon after giving birth, according to interviews with more than a dozen female residents in the Jacobabad area as well as half a dozen development and human rights experts.
Further adding to the risks, women in socially conservative Pakistan — and many other places — typically cook the family meals over hot stoves or open fires, often in cramped rooms with no ventilation or cooling.
“If you’re inside cooking next to a hot open fire you have that burden of that heat in addition to the ambient heat which makes things that much more dangerous,” Sorensen added.
Extreme humid heat events
South Asia has suffered unseasonably hot temperatures in recent months. An extreme heatwave that scorched Pakistan and India in April was 30 times more likely to happen due to climate change, according to scientists at World Weather Attribution, an international research collaboration. Global temperatures have risen by about 1.2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.
As temperatures continue rising, extreme heatwaves are only expected to increase.
Jacobabad’s roughly 200,000 residents are well aware of their reputation as one of the world’s hottest cities.
“If we go to hell, we’ll take a blanket,” is a common joke told in the area.
Few places are more punishing. Last month, temperatures hit 51 Celsius (124 Fahrenheit) on May 14, which according to local meteorological officials was highly unusual for that time of year. Tropical rains can also conspire with warm winds from the Arabian Sea to drive up humidity later in the year.
The more humid it is, the harder it is for people to cool down via sweating. Such conditions are measured by “wet bulb temperatures”, taken by a thermometer wrapped in a wet cloth. Wet bulb temperatures of 35C or higher are considered the limit to human survival.
Jacobabad has crossed that threshold at least twice since 2010, according to regional weather data. And, globally, such “extreme humid heat events” have more than doubled in frequency in the last four decades, according to a May 2020 study in the journal Science.
Sonari, who is in her 20s, and Waderi work alongside about a dozen other women, several of them pregnant, in the melon fields about 10 km from Jacobabad’s centre.
They begin work each day at 6am with a short afternoon break for housework and cooking before returning to the field to work until sundown. They describe leg pains, fainting episodes and discomfort while breastfeeding.
“It feels like no one sees them, no one cares about them,” aid worker Liza Khan said more broadly about the plight facing many women in Jacobabad and the wider Sindh region which straddles the border of Pakistan and India.
Published in Dawn, June 15th, 2022
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