Over a thousand men and women have succumbed to an unforgiving spate of heat. Many have been buried unidentified, in mass graves. Others languish in morgues, waiting till an appropriate resting place is found in a city where burial spaces appear scarce and increasingly expensive. This is Karachi — a city that has seen its fair share of crises, attributable mostly to persisting (and often deadly) political rivalries. But where do we pin the blame for this calamity that now grips Karachi? Are the deaths a consequence of the senselessness and negligence by the deceased? Can we hold the continued power cuts by K-Electric responsible for the loss of lives? Or does the blame lie upon the abject failure of the state in the prevention, mitigation and management of this natural disaster?
As temperatures in Karachi soared over the last weeks, the provincial government did not institute appropriate warning mechanisms or treatment facilities or act with requisite speed or wisdom to stem the rising fatalities. Government hospitals are still unable to handle the influx of affected individuals, having to rely on private donations for the most basic necessities — ice, water and hospital beds. With no government plan for the disposal of bodies, the city’s morgues remain overcrowded and funeral vans unavailable. Even in the midst of this brutal heatwave, the water crisis in Karachi (that has driven many in the past to purchase private water tankers and in some cases to unlawful boring) persists. But can we rightly censure the provincial government, which may well have been caught by surprise by the unexpected and extreme rise in temperatures? To search for justifications for the government’s unpreparedness and inaction in such terms is to obscure real issues and failures.
The heatwave across the border in India that claimed over 2,000 lives this May ought to have been a forewarning. The fifth Assessment Report of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, released earlier this year, had already warned of increasing intensity of heatwaves across South Asia, with prolonged periods of drought and rainfall. The Global Change Impact Studies Centre finds that the rise in temperatures in Pakistan is, in fact, higher than the average global temperature increase. Pakistan has already experienced intense heatwaves in 2003, 2005, 2007 and 2010.
The current heatwave in Karachi is then hardly so unexpected. The government’s response, or rather the lack thereof, is actually part of a larger problem: the general failure on the part of the state to adapt to, and prepare for, the challenges posed by climate change. This is despite the host of climate-driven calamities that Pakistan has had to contend with over the last few years: flash floods, cyclonic showers, erratic rainfall, drought and famine. According to Climate Asia, 44 per cent of the population of Pakistan feels that it has been adversely affected as a consequence of changes in the climate.
A National Climate Change Policy 2012 launched during the tenure of the previous government exists on paper. The document identifies key threats posed by climate change to the eco-system and the economy of Pakistan, and emphasises the need to adapt to such threats. The impact on human health, lives and fatalities is, however, considered only obliquely with vague references to the provision of quality medical services, early warning systems and community participation in warning dissemination. The document also stresses institutional capacity building through the establishment, for instance, of climate change cells in federal and provincial ministries. Much of the policy document remains unimplemented. The value of such document, even otherwise, remains questionable.
On the other hand, Ahmedabad’s early warning Heat Action Plan against extreme heatwaves may provide a more effective model for emulation. The Plan focuses on the creation of public awareness regarding heat-related illnesses and relevant preventative measures, identifying and increasing access to drinking water stations and green spaces for shade, mandating the provision of water and resting areas at construction sites, ensuring against water and electricity cuts during periods of extreme heat and developing transportation systems that help avoid heat stress. With another surge in temperatures forecast in Sindh, the provincial government would be wise to learn from Ahmedabad’s experience.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 30th, 2015.
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