By Shaheera Syed
A severe heat wave struck southern Pakistan in June 2015 claiming the lives of around 2000 people. The temperature peaked to 49 °C (120 °F), the highest-recorded temperature in the country in the last 35 years.
Karachi, the central vein of the country having a population nearing 20 million, was the worst struck area. Unfortunately, despite being the third-largest city in the world, like any other city of Pakistan, Karachi is severely under equipped to deal with emergency situations and disasters. As the heat intensified, deaths resulting from heat stroke and dehydration rose and the morgues were soon filled to their capacity. The refrigeration units soon failed and the bodies of the fallen were stocked on top of each other with a hanging handwritten note on the door of the morgue saying, ‘sorry, we are out of space.’
The situation was further strained as the heat wave coincided with the Holy month of Ramadan, during which Muslims are forbidden from eating or drinking in daylight hours. However, I believe the onus falls more heavily on the federal and provincial government, K-electric and state run disaster management authorities like NDMA. In addition to the natural adversity, simultaneous widespread failures of electrical grids led to major electricity shortages and power cuts crippling the water supply system of the city, depriving people of water supply and adding to their woes.
On paper, we have numerous bodies like National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), Provincial Disaster Management Authority (PDMA) and National Health Emergency Preparedness and Response Network (NHEPRN) but when catastrophe strikes, affectees automatically look at rangers, armed forces of Pakistan, NGOs or local populace for help. I find it deeply disturbing that NDMC is headed by the Prime Minister of Pakistan and has representation from all key government officials ranging from Leader of the Opposition in the National Assembly Member to Minsters of Defense, Foreign Affairs and Finance and yet, it has time and again failed in the face of adversity.
It is important to point towards the heat wave in neighboring India, just a month earlier than the Karachi episode that left nearly around 1,700 people dead. Although, sadly enough, it failed to raise any red flags for our meteorological department and disaster management authorities. Even after the onslaught of the heat wave, the response of the political leadership and concerned authorities was disappointing. Given the technological advancements all over the world, 68 years after its inception, it is a misfortune that Pakistan has been unable to fully develop and strengthen its disaster relief and management structures. The country’s history is marred with natural disasters ranging from floods, tsunamis, droughts, cyclones and earthquakes. These disasters have resulted in the loss of millions of rupees, destroyed infrastructures on a massive level and have claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of innocent people.
Many environmental experts in Pakistan have voiced their concerns that the recent heat wave in Karachi was a mere symptom of global climate change mainly aggravated by massive deforestation and expansion of asphalt superhighways in the country. We all agree that man can’t control nature and I am not making an argument for that either. My only plea is to identify and to focus on things that are in our control. I don’t have to try very hard to bring home my point, the facts speak for themselves.
– Pakistan has the highest rate of deforestation in the world
– The work on PML-N’s flagship project of Metro Bus started even before the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) report was finalized
– Thousands of trees were chopped down under a 635 million rupees project to designate of a permanent location for Pakistan Day Parade on 23rd March
– Environmentalists claim that lack of sophisticated weather prediction technology in Pakistan has majorly contributed to the casualties of the heat wave in Karachi
One look around and we realize that we are not alone in this. In Washington state’s Olympic National Park, for the first time in its history, the rainforest caught fire. Puerto Rico is under its strictest water rationing in history as a monster El Niño forms in the tropical Pacific Ocean, shifting weather patterns worldwide. London reached 98 degrees Fahrenheit during the hottest July day ever recorded in the U.K. this year. North Pacific has never seen such high water temperatures spreading on such level. This has already started to show a profound effect on the marine life. The CEO of American food giant General Mills has predicted that global warming is threatening to disrupt global food supplies.
The geographical location of Pakistan places it in heat surplus zone, making it extremely susceptible to the impacts of climate change. Environment has almost always assumed a backseat in the agenda of our political leadership. I remember a famous Pakistani news anchor commenting that ‘we don’t talk about environment in our shows because it is not commercial enough’ in a conference organized by International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in 2013.
The harsh reality is that we have not learnt from our mistakes and we are grossly unprepared to deal with any disaster. We have yet to truly enable and strengthen our disaster and emergency response bodies, build resilient infrastructures and join the technological revolution. And this can’t be done if we are still stuck with formulating and tasking committees for investigations that barely ever produce anything useful while our country’s top natural disaster management authority starves for resources.
The world has realized that climate change is real and it is here. The only question that we need to ask ourselves is when are we going to do anything about it!