Adapt or perish

When you destroy mangroves, cut roadside trees and raze green parks to build buildings, how can you adapt to a future

Rina Saeed Khan July 04, 2015
The writer is an award-winning environmental journalist. She holds an MA in Environment and Development from SOAS in London

The death toll from the heatwave that scorched Karachi last week has crossed 1,259 in the last 12 days. It has now joined India’s heatwave of May 2015 as one of the 10 deadliest in world history, according to the weather blogger, Dr Jeff Masters.

Statistics from the International Disaster Database show that Pakistan’s previous deadliest heatwave was in 1991, when 523 people died.

The worst of the heatwave has now passed and according to the Met Office, “there is no threat of another heatwave in Pakistan, including Karachi” in the near future. The Met Office further explained on its website that a spell of scattered rain and thundershowers are expected in upper parts of the country during the coming week and that the monsoon will arrive with its cooling rains in Karachi by mid-July.

The past week saw an unusually long spell of very hot days in Karachi, with temperatures that did not cool at night; hence the high number of deaths in the metropolis, as there was no respite from the heat.

The heatwave peaked on June 20, when the peak temperature hit 44.8° Celsius. It felt much hotter, however, due to the ‘heat island effect’, which turned the city into a furnace. “Concrete buildings absorb heat during the day and radiate it at night,” explains Dr Qamaruz Zaman Chaudhry, a former Director General of the Met Office and now a climate change expert. Furthermore, he stated that “44.8° Celsius was recorded in the open area of Karachi airport — inside the city the temperature could have felt as hot as 50° Celsius due to the heat island effect”.

With the sea breeze cut off due to a low pressure system that had built up in the Arabian Sea, the city sizzled for almost six consecutive days, breaking a 10-year record.

“While it is still too early to attribute the current heatwave in Karachi to human-induced climate change, it is possible to predict that there will be more such heatwaves in the future and the death toll will rise each time unless adequate adaptation measures are put in place,” says Saleemul Huq, director of the International Center for Climate Change and Development in Bangladesh and a prominent climate scientist.

According to the UN’s Intergovern-mental Panel on Climate Change, “there is a high level of certainty that an increase in the frequency and intensity of heatwaves would increase the numbers of additional deaths from hot weather”. With the world’s temperature rising due to global warming, there is no doubt in the minds of scientists that more heatwaves should be expected in the near future.

In a concrete jungle like Karachi, where parks and green belts are illegally taken over by the land mafia, the recent heatwave and high death toll should be a wake-up call.

The city can now add global warming to its long list of woes; when you destroy mangrove areas, cut down roadside trees and raze green parks in order to build concrete buildings, how can you adapt to a future in which global temperatures might well cross 2° Celsius this century?

Other cities around the world are planting gardens on rooftops, protecting and expanding their green spaces, investing in renewable energy and building sustainable public transport systems — they see the future and they are preparing for it. Either we adapt or perish.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 5th, 2015.

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