Who is to blame for the heatwave deaths?

We don’t yet fully know, because we don’t have complete evidence. All it requires is harnessing the power of data.


Madiha Afzal July 06, 2015
The writer is an Assistant Professor of Public Policy at the University of Maryland and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Brookings Institution. She tweets @MadihaAfzal

More than 1,300 lives lost in the Sindh heatwave (more than double the number of victims of terrorism so far in 2015), and everyone’s tripping over themselves to point the finger somewhere: at K-Electric, at the Sindh government, the federal government, on fasting, or climate change. We have seen a political spectacle in Karachi and Islamabad despite all the misery in Sindh: shouting matches between the PML-N and the PPP in parliament; Qaim Ali Shah and other PPP leaders bizarrely protesting power outages outside their own Sindh Assembly. One finger has even been pointed towards India — Minister for Climate Change Mushahidullah Khan said that trans-border pollution may be partly to blame for the high temperatures in Karachi. At least no one is blaming America — yet.

Even terrorist groups have joined the fray, with the Taliban blaming K-Electric for the deaths and warning the company that it would take “action” against it if outages continued. It is maddening that murderers of children can take advantage of the current political blame game to engage in propaganda.

So who is to blame? The answer is that we don’t yet fully know, because we don’t have complete evidence. It is in the interest of this country’s political class to obfuscate the truth on this matter (and almost all others).

But in this case, the true causes(s) of these deaths are easy enough to ascertain. All it requires is harnessing the power of data. Here’s the information that needs to be collected on each person who died as a result of the heatwave: 1) were they homeless or living in a home? We partly know the answer to this, with the Sindh health minister giving us a figure of 60-65 per cent of the dead being homeless; 2) basic socio-demographics — age, gender, economic status, employment status; 3) were they fasting; 4) how many hours a day did they spend inside a building — how many hours a day did that building have electricity? Did they have access to a UPS; 5) how many hours a day did they spend outside the home, working or commuting; 6) if employed, what was the type of employment — physical or manual labour; 7) were they suffering from any other illnesses; 8) did they receive adequate medical care?

What is required is a simple, systematic, complete data collection exercise. A statistical analysis of answers to the above questions would then tell us the most probable cause(s) of each death. Except that none of those for whom the data is to be collected are alive, so the question becomes a bit more complicated.

For those whose bodies were claimed — who have family — we should still be able to get most of these questions answered by family members. It is for those who don’t have family or friends (some, maybe many, of the homeless) that the questions are tougher to answer. We know that there were at least 82 unidentified bodies buried by the Edhi Foundation. For them, there will be no one to answer those questions — so we may have to make certain assumptions about these victims.

Once the data is collected and assumptions are made for the missing data, and it is all analysed to determine the likely cause(s) of death in each case, it will be clear who is to blame and for how many deaths. For some deaths, there may be no one to blame but the weather. Most importantly, we will have clear policy implications — and how to prioritise them — to prevent deaths in the future.

For those who were homeless, it is likely that constant exposure to the heat and lack of access to water due to Ramazan were responsible. It falls on the Karachi municipal government and the Sindh government to provide shelter and water for the homeless, even during Ramazan — and to prevent more deaths, the federal government should show leniency in applying the Ehtram-e-Ramazan Ordinance this year, and each year when Ramazan falls in the summer.

For those who died in their homes, a combination of factors will be at play. Whether the final culprit is age, other illnesses, fasting, power supply issues, inadequate hospital care, lack of awareness of dehydration, or a mix of these will depend on each case. The Sindh health minister stated that of the 35-40 per cent of cases where the victims lived in homes, the majority of them were elderly women — why? Were they old and ill, and could not withstand the heat? Were they dehydrated? Were they fasting? Was it because of lack of electricity? Did they work outside the home, and have direct exposure to the sun? All questions that are as yet unanswered.

In the end, it will likely turn out that multiple entities and factors are responsible for this tragedy. They must all be held to account for these deaths. But before descending into a blame game, and giving murderers like the Taliban fodder and a propaganda tool, a proper investigation is of utmost importance. Basing politics and policy on evidence has never been this country’s way of doing business. It’s time to change that.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 7th, 2015.

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COMMENTS (12)

Harish | 6 years ago | Reply @Ali: RLOL, You made my day. Such humor, you are a serious threat to Johnny Lever.
Oats | 6 years ago | Reply @Parvez: We need to blame Musharraf who stayed in power 10 years and did not add any electricity to the national electricity network.
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