Who is to blame for the heatwave deaths?

Published: July 7, 2015
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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

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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Reader Comments (12)

  • joy
    Jul 7, 2015 - 7:50AM

    elementary respected author..it is India whose power plant emissions are the source of the heat wave,( thus spoke one of your learned ministers)Recommend

  • part
    Jul 7, 2015 - 9:00AM

    If you divert your resources from making nuclear bombs to electricity you wouldn’t have had this problem in the first place. But sorry I forgot u decided to eat grass but go nuclear right. The same goes for water also, last dam you built was some 40+ years and you blame India for your water crisesRecommend

  • Ali
    Jul 7, 2015 - 9:48AM

    India is responsible because of their rapid industrialization they are stealing all our water and diverting it to their use and that is one reason many part of Pakistan is facing water shortage and that in turn is destroying our green cover and that is increasing the temperature – apart from this to feed their industries India is generating lots of coal based power and deliberately they have built all their coal based power plants along our boarders and now Pakistan should take India to international court for causing damage to nature…!!Recommend

  • parth
    Jul 7, 2015 - 10:05AM

    @Ali: Lol . I like your theory of global warming. You forgot to mention that ther is lack of sanitationin India because 1.28 billion people are doing there natures calls in Indus river and you are drinking itRecommend

  • Tony Singh
    Jul 7, 2015 - 11:13AM

    @Ali:
    ” to feed their industries India is generating lots of coal based power and deliberately they have built all their coal based power plants along our boarders and now Pakistan should take India to international court for causing damage to nature…!!”

    Now walk the talk or just shut up.Recommend

  • anilabdullard
    Jul 7, 2015 - 11:58AM

    Jester,thy name [email protected], for he brings much needed humour as he lives in a place that witnesses anything but goodness on a daily basis. Replying to him would bring truth to the adage-to argue with a fool makes one a bigger fool…Recommend

  • Parvez
    Jul 7, 2015 - 12:50PM

    The short logical answer is……abysmal bad governance.Recommend

  • JB
    Jul 7, 2015 - 3:40PM

    We can do all the analysis we want; the bottom line is that the people who died and the families affected would care less. We have to think from the common man’s perspective. Ask them and they will give the true reason. No, it was not climate change; (its hot every year in June and July); no it was not even K-Electric. It was the genius think tank who thought that spending billions on a metro bus was more important than tackling the power crisis.Recommend

  • Avtar
    Jul 7, 2015 - 6:37PM

    I agree with @Pervez – bad governance and even lack of common sense.
    The government authorities and the media need to announce the warning and open the doors of their lobbies or schools to shelter from heat for an hour or two and provide cold water. One does not have to be a rocket scientist.Recommend

  • Rishu Garg
    Jul 7, 2015 - 11:42PM

    Good job girl!!Recommend

  • Oats
    Jul 7, 2015 - 11:44PM

    @Parvez: We need to blame Musharraf who stayed in power 10 years and did not add any electricity to the national electricity network.Recommend

  • Harish
    Jul 9, 2015 - 10:27AM

    @Ali:
    RLOL, You made my day. Such humor, you are a serious threat to Johnny Lever. Recommend

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