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South Asia’s early heatwave a harbinger of climate change

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It’s a little before noon and Khalida, working as a domestic helper for a family in Islamabad, is late for work for the third time this week. Sweating profusely and realizing that she might black out from the heat soon, she scans the road for shade where she can sit and catch her breath.

Second guessing her decision to not use public transport, so she can save money for rising electricity bills, Khalida — like millions of others in Pakistan — is finding it difficult to grapple with the unexpected heatwave that has enveloped the region.

“I’m unable to sleep properly at night in this heat and in the morning I am torn between taking public transport to work and avoiding heatstroke, or saving money for the rising electricity bills,” she says.

South Asia did not experience the usual pleasant spring this year. Instead, there was a sudden shift from bone-chilling winters to scorching temperatures. Since April, in parts of Pakistan, the average maximum temperature has remained above 40°C. An alarming harbinger of climate change, as a heatwave in April is unheard of. In the previous years, such temperatures were recorded in the peak of summer.

India too is reeling under the impact of an unprecedented heatwave, putting the lives and livelihoods of millions of people at risk.

March was the hottest since records began 122 years ago. The intense heat has combined with a stark lack of rain.

People who live and work in cities are feeling it the worst. Recent data by NASA reveals several ‘urban heat islands’ in Delhi and other parts of North India, with temperatures as much as 5°C higher than surrounding areas. While office workers can be insulated, those living outside have little relief.

Heatwaves are one of the earliest and most obvious symptoms of climate change. In Pakistan, climate induced disasters are aggravated by socio-economic factors like high population density, existing inequalities, and labour-intensive agriculture, which the country is heavily reliant on.

According to a 2021 study, deadly heat stress might become common across South Asia. One reason is the rise of wet-bulb temperatures, observed in the monsoon belt. As temperatures rise, warmer air can hold more moisture.

The combination of high heat and high humidity — the wet bulb temperature — is dangerous.

A wet-bulb temperature of 32°C is the highest people can work in, while 35°C represents the upper limit of human survivability. Beyond this sweat cannot evaporate, and the human body can’t cool itself.

In mid-March, the Pakistan Metrological Department issued heatwave warnings. Citizens were told to expect hot and dry temperatures for most parts of the country, causing water stress for reservoirs, crops, and orchards, but also an increase in river levels due to melting glaciers.

These were followed by a series of disasters. In May, a glacial lake burst at the Shisper glacier in the north of the country.

Fortunately a weather station that had been installed there by UNDP Pakistan and Ministry of Climate Change, resulting in prompt action by authorities.

The Pakistan Metrological Department and the Ministry of Climate Change issued glacial lake flood alerts in April, while the Gilgit Baltistan Disaster Management Authority declared an emergency.

Due to these preventive measures, families were evacuated in time and there was no loss of life. However, the floods damaged numerous houses, two power plants, and other infrastructure.

A week late, a wildfire engulfed the Musakhail and Sherani pine forests in Balochistan, an arid area that experiences long droughts. These pine forests supported livelihoods of local communities, and protected biodiversity and endangered species such as the mountain goat, Suleiman Markhor.

In recent years, communities have been conserving and improving forest management. They have learned the most effective ways of collecting, roasting, and packaging pine-nuts. In 2019, they won the Equator Prize in recognition of their efforts.

It takes at least two to three decades for the pine-nut trees to mature, and the raging inferno has destroyed at least 30 percent of the UNESCO heritage forest. Attempts to extinguish the fire failed due to lack of resources.

The heatwave is also hitting the agriculture sector in Pakistan. In a recent interview with Al-Jazeera, UNDP Pakistan’s Assistant Resident Representative Amanullah Khan said; “It’s not as if the agriculture of this country has not seen temperatures of 41°C or 43°C — the problem is that crops need certain temperatures at a certain time of their growth. Despite being a net exporter for many years, Pakistan imported wheat last year.”

India is looking at similar cascading effects. It has already banned wheat exports to ensure there are sufficient stocks to feed its own people. Energy demand is at an all-time high, which has led to more coal being used for to generate power. Deaths from heatstroke as well as respiratory and infectious diseases are rising, especially among older adults, children, people working outdoors, and those in low-income communities.

The IPCC has predicted that extreme weather will continue to increase. As governments, businesses and communities, we need to start putting measures in place to ensure that the lives and livelihoods of people are protected against such climate shocks, especially those like Khalida, who have to make even more difficult decisions every day.

“Even though I’m earning the same amount of money that I was at the beginning of the year, my monthly budgeting didn’t foresee the inflation or the sudden heat rise,” she says.

Story by: Tabindah Anwar, Communications Associate, Communications Unit, UNDP Pakistan

Edited by: Ayesha Babar, Communications Analyst & Head of Communications Unit, UNDP Pakistan