Boiling point

Published May 27, 2024
The writer is a political and integrity risk analyst
The writer is a political and integrity risk analyst

ANOTHER heatwave, another slew of alarming headlines. We are better prepared than we were in 2015, when over 2,500 people lost their lives to soaring temperatures. Public awareness has improved, and emergency measures such as relief camps have been mobilised in urban areas. But Pakistan is still a long way from building the resilience — in all respects, sociopolitical to infrastructural — that it will need to endure the ravages of climate change, particularly extreme heat.

Concern about extreme heat has largely been driven by economic considerations. The Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research has estimated that global warming will reduce global income by 19 per cent by 2049. The ADB has found that extreme heat results in 650 billion hours of annual labour losses globally (equivalent to 148 million full-time jobs). Of immediate relevance to Pakistan, 2022 research from Dartmouth University found that an annual increase in the temperature of the five hottest days of the year can reduce economic growth by a percentage point.

This economic fallout is driven by decreases in labour productivity and supply as the working poor become unwell, supply chain disruption, and agricultural loss. A recent policy report by LSE’s Grantham Institute on the impact of high temperatures on Bangladesh’s workforce found that wlabour productivity and supply would decrease by 46.2pc by 2080 in a world with a three-degree temperature rise.

But extreme heat is not about GDP alone. Evidence is mounting that heatwaves amplify inequality. Women, the rural and urban poor, marginalised groups and those with less education are more likely to die in heatwaves. These are typically groups with fewer resources, informal housing, erratic energy access and poor healthcare. And we cannot easily ignore this demographic: 1.2bn urban and rural poor will be coping without cooling solutions by 2030.

Extreme heat means extreme stress.

Women are especially hard hit by extreme heat. According to an FAO report published in March, female-headed households lose 8pc of their income due to heat stress; in the case of female farm labour — a key working constituency in Pakistan — each day of extreme high temperatures reduces the value of crops produced by women by 3pc as compared to men. This is because when the mercury rises, women focus more on unpaid domestic work — sourcing water, caring for heat-affected dependents, and cooking under prohibitive conditions. The physical toll of extreme heat on women, particularly pregnant ones, is also more adverse.

Worse, high temperatures also correlate with an increase in gender-based violence. A 2023 study by JAMA Psychiatry based on research in Pakistan, India and Nepal found that a one degree Celsius increase in the average annual temperature linked to a 6.3pc increase in incidents of physical and sexual abuse. Again, this is no surprise: when temperatures rise, crops fail, daily wage earners struggle to work, health suffers, and the financial pressures resulting from these realities kick in just as families are trapped indoors to escape the sun.

Extreme heat means extreme stress, driving not only domestic violence but also poor mental health. Research from the US, for example, shows that higher temperatures coincide with an increase in hospital visits for anxiety, self-harm and substance abuse.

Children are also susceptible to extreme heat — and it’s not just about dehydration. Frequent heatwaves can have a long-term effect on a child’s educational attainment. Half of our country’s school-going population has lost a week of learning to the current heatwave. Globally, according to the FAO, higher temperatures also result in 49 more minutes of child labour per week as children pick up chores that women cannot attend to while they manage the extra domestic burden of hot days.

Given this, heat cannot only be considered through an economic lens, with bottom line considerations of worker productivity driving climate-adaptation efforts. We have to see extreme heat as an amplifier of social inequality and marginalisation, and recognise that the welfare of future generations could be jeopardised with each poorly managed heatwave.

We know the solutions (heat-resilient urban infrastructure, greenhouse gas reduction, holistic farm policies that acknowledge women’s challenges in a climate-stressed world, etc). But what will make us implement them? Perhaps our policymakers should closely watch the election across the border, unfolding in extreme heat, with collapsing candidates and stalled campaigning. Early evidence shows that heatwaves alter voter preferences, with ballots going to those with proactive plans for building agricultural resilience and planning irrigation. If money couldn’t get us to plan better for extreme heat, maybe politics will?

The writer is a political and integrity risk analyst.

X: @humayusuf

Published in Dawn, May 27th, 2024

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