JACOBABAD, Pakistan—Sajjad Ali lies semi-conscious in the heatstroke center at Civil Hospital here, an intravenous line in his wrist delivering fluids to his dehydrated body.
Ali, 15, operates a tractor in the fields on the outskirts of Jacobabad—one of the hottest cities on Earth—and was carried to the hospital after his temperature remained at 102 degrees for a week.
Muhammad Musa is on the opposite side, kept at a cool, 78 degrees, by a whirring fan-operated air conditioner. He sleeps in another bed, its cobalt bluish frame contrasting starkly against his face, which has been drained of color. A farm worker in Jacobabad’s rice fields, Musa, 65, arrived with a 102 degree temperature, body aches and severe dehydration.
Jacobabad, a landlocked city in Pakistan’s Sindh Province nearly 340 miles north of Karachi, is pushing the limits of human livability on a warming planet. Unprecedented heat waves have ravaged India and Pakistan since March 1, affecting more than a half a million people across the subcontinent. Jacobabad was one of the worst-hit cities. 51 days straight of temperatures above 100 degrees since March. Last month, the temperature was 123.8 degrees, and it was 122 degrees on three other occasions.
Rising temperatures and humidity, coupled with electricity shortages, water stress and the absence of heat adaptation measures, have exceeded thresholds that experts say the human body can stand, with more intense summers arriving earlier in the year, and some experts say that going forward, those extreme conditions could last for 10 months each year.
The 2022 South Asia heatwave is already believed to have led to more than 90 deaths in India, Pakistan, and glacial melts that resulted in lower Indian wheat crop yields. According to a report by the World Weather Attribution Initiative, climate change made the onset of the heatwave 30 times more likely.
Bashir Ahmed (a duty nurse) asked Ali how he was feeling back at the heatstroke center. But the 15-year-old struggled to gather enough energy to speak a full sentence, his lips dry and half parted.
Ahmed seemed unaffected. The hospital’s medical staff is not easily distracted by heat stroke patients. More than 100 people were admitted to this hospital for heat-related illnesses in May, but no deaths have been reported.
Two hours later, both patients were still recovering. Musa’s body temperature had gone down to 100 degrees, but he would still need another hour to regain enough energy to sit up. Despite the fever, he was able to relax for the first time since weeks.
Musa wore a black and white checkered linen scarf over both his eyes, and fell asleep in a light sleep. He is among 70 percent of Jacobabad’s population of roughly 200,000 who live below the poverty line, primarily farm workers and daily wage earners in factories or brick kilns.
Above Musa’s bed was a large banner that listed preventative measures against heat strokes. First, stay indoors or under a shade during hot hours. It is a luxury that he, and other farm workers, cannot afford. “If we stop working every time it gets too hot,” he said, “how will we eat?”
Named after Brigadier-General John Jacob of the East India Company, Jacobabad developed a primarily agrarian economy after Jacob’s arrival in 1847. He ordered the construction of a canal to bring water up from the Indus for irrigation and agriculture. Jacobabad is nine hours drive from Karachi.
According to projections by Berkeley Earth, an environmental nonprofit, Pakistan will experience a 3.5 degree Celsius increase in temperature by the end of this century. The possibility of heatwave-like conditions will increase is predicted. In Pakistan’s Sindh province, more cities are experiencing 120 degree weather earlier than expected.
Although Pakistan has contributed less that 1 percent to global greenhouse gas emissions, it is among the top 10 most threatened nations by climate change. The United Nations climate change conference, COP15 in Copenhagen, 2009, saw developed countries agree to provide $100 billion in climate funding to developing countries by 2020. However, this promise remains unfulfilled. Pakistan is currently facing an economic crisis with its rupee dropping to a record low in relation to the U.S. dollar. This means that it needs billions of dollars in aid to address its adaptation, mitigation, and mitigation needs. “Developed countries have to start putting in at least a billion dollars every year into Pakistan’s mitigation and adaptation,” said environmental policy consultant Dawar Butt.
Karachi experienced a heat wave in 2015 that was unprecedented. This led to more than 1,500 deaths. Since then, Karachi has had a heatwave plan that includes setting up cooling infrastructure, alert systems and addressing urban heat islands in densely-populated areas.
Jacobabad has no such plan, despite its history with extreme heat. Here, residents come together in small ways to help each other survive the city’s unbearable heat. Each Friday afternoon, groups of young men set up stands along the roadside, near mosques, to hand out cold drinking water to passersby.
Hakim Ali, 22, a 22-year old who works in an ice factory in the capital, lost consciousness last month when temperatures reached 123 degrees. To relieve the symptoms of heatstroke, his friends and coworkers dipped him in cold water.
The city’s residents know how to handle heat stroke, bringing out cold water buckets and placing patients in the shade at the first sign of a heat-related symptom. The city’s healthcare infrastructure is not equipped to deal with heat waves that are frequent and prolonged. The only four-bed heat stroke center in the city where Sajjad, Musa, and Musa were admitted was established by the local hospital and the Community Development Foundation, an non-governmental grassroots organization that does aid work in the area. But coordinated planning among health and disaster management departments, heat adaptation measures specific to Jacobabad’s unique weather and cooling infrastructure for communities that work outdoors in the heat are largely absent from policy.
Every morning, at dawn, when the temperature is typically at its lowest, men gather around concrete tanks that house groundwater. This underground water is private pumped, stored, and sold to distributors. On the dusty streets, you will see many motorbikes laden on carts with deep-blue motorcycles.
The U.S. government spent $2 Million in 2019 to support Jacobabad’s water supply. But, a USAID report last year revealed that Jacobabad still has limited clean water supplies due to frequent power cut at Jacobabad’s water filtration plant, a dearth of technical staff on the site, and little or no coordination between local government agencies.
Residents continue to buy water from private distributors even though the city is water-stressed. A five-gallon container of water is sold for one cent. A family with five people spends $6 per month to buy water for drinking and cleaning. “Most families in the city earn less than $2 a day,” said Jan Muhammad Odhano, director of the Community Development Foundation.
The fewer men in the surrounding fields, the warmer it gets, the less they are. The hot hours are when male farm workers take a break and return to work in the evening.
Women are restricted from flexible work hours because of safety concerns, social norms, and household responsibilities. They can still be seen working between noon and 4 pm, when the temperature is at its highest.
For Jacobabad’s Women, a Crushing Routine
Noor Bibi, and the women of her village, five-miles east of the city spend most of their time in June knee-deep under water, planting rice when the temperature reaches 115 degrees or higher.
Bibi claimed that she lost consciousness in fields last year after suffering from a 100-degree fever for a week. Rural women are more likely to be responsible for household necessities, such as securing adequate water supply and food. They also have to perform more labor intensive tasks at home and in the agricultural fields. According to the United Nations, this makes them more vulnerable to climate change.
The heatstroke center has limited record keeping. Doctors and nurses agree that women are at greater risk of heatstroke and account for a larger proportion of patients.
Bibi wakes up at 5 a.m. every morning and makes her way out of her room into the courtyard where the family’s cattle–two water buffaloes–are tied under a tree on one side and the kitchen is set up on the other. She sits down on a wooden stool at the stove and grabs a half-full sack of dried-up cowdung. Jacobabad’s most popular sources of energy are solid fuels, firewood, and wood.
Bibi cooks most of her meals early in the morning, while her husband and three kids are still asleep. Her daughter Zahida, a 19-year-old dropout of school at 13 years old, manages the house and takes care her younger brothers. While her mother works in the fields, her mother stays home during the summer. Like many other men in the neighborhood, her husband, Imdad, is unemployed.
Bibi and eight other women, walk two-and a half miles each morning to reach the fields at 6:30 in the morning. During late May, a few weeks before rice cultivation begins across the Sindh province, the women prepare the fields, filling cracks in the soil and helping build temporary boundary walls to minimize water loss. The fields are then filled in with water to grow rice. This water stays standing during the summer months, adding to the humidity throughout the province.
“We’re worse off than our buffaloes,” said Bibi. “At least they can soak themselves in water when the heat gets unbearable.”
Ameeran Baloch (35), lives in a small town about one mile from the city’s entrance with her husband Zaheer, their five kids, and an aging mother. Zaheer is a local baker and one of the few men with a steady monthly income.
By mid-May of every year, most of Ameeran’s neighbors, including her sister Zahida’s family, start getting ready to migrate to Quetta, a city roughly 200 miles west of Jacobabad where summer temperatures rarely cross the 100-degree threshold. Those who can pack up their belongings and move to colder places during the summer months in Jacobabad are able to do so. Some migrate all of the way to Karachi. Action Aid has published a report that states that by 2030, climate change-induced disasters in Pakistan will force over 600,000 people to flee their homes.
But for Zaheer and his family, leaving a steady income to escape the city’s harsh heat is not an option. Jacobabad’s hot summer months bring with them power cuts that last 10 to 12 hours per hour.
While Zaheer works at the bakery, where a battery-operated fuel generator keeps the fans running, Ameeran’s time at home is spent finding ways to protect herself, her mother-in-law Jan Bibi, who suffers from diabetes, and her five children, Asifa, Bashir, Tahira, Mudassir and Benazir, from the heat.
On a recent afternoon, Bashir, Ameeran’s youngest, dressed in a black shirt and orange pajamas, sat under a hand pump for water in a corner of their home. The mother pulled down the metal lever to pour cold water on Bashir, who laughed. Jan Bibi joined the pair and took some water with her to splash her face.
After Bashir was done, Ameeran did the exercise four times more for her other children. charpaai, A traditional bed made from a solid wood frame with ropes that allows air to flow through. The cooling effect of the wind blowing in intermittent bursts is natural, but it will decrease as the weather changes and the humidity and heat increase. “This is our air conditioning,” Bibi laughs.
Keep Environmental Journalism Alive
ICN provides award winning climate coverage without charge or advertising. We are dependent on donations from readers like yours to continue our work.
Ameeran, who is now responsible for cooking lunch for the family, waited to be taken under the pump until all chores were completed. The power has already been out for more than five hours and she doesn’t think it will be restored by day’s end.
The provincial government announced a $100 million project in 2019 to increase power generation and improve electricity access in Sindh Province. This was in partnership with The World Bank. A portion of the money was meant to provide solar power access for more than 200,000 homes in rural Sindh between 2019-2020, but the project is still in the evaluation phase.
Last week, a maintenance problem caused a three-day power outage in Ameeran’s neighborhood. Today, she and her two oldest children, Benazir (10 years old) and Mudassir (8 years old), will move the three remaining siblings. charpaaisAs they often do, they will go to the courtyard just before sunset. Jacobabad residents are increasingly finding it hard to get uninterrupted rest, whether they sleep indoors or out in the courtyard. Late last month, nighttime temperatures in the area reached 110 degrees.
The family stays awake when the power goes out. “We would suffocate inside,” Ameeran said.
Source: Inside Climate News