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OPINION: Coping with heatwaves

CDKN has undertaken a project to facilitate stakeholders in developing a heatwave management plan for Karachi, Pakistan. In this post, Syed Muhammad Abubakar, Knowledge Officer for CDKN Asia highlights how this project will initiate a process at the local level to help the development of the heatwave management plan, in coordination with and through the consensus of all stakeholders. 

In the summer of 2015, Pakistan faced a deadly heatwave. Temperatures increased to more than 43°Celsius, accompanied by air depression over the Arabian Sea, blocking the sea breeze to Karachi. The situation became more severe due to clear skies, which made the air warmer. The Karachi heatwave of 2015 was among the top ten deadliest heatwaves of human history, killing 1,271 people.

According to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), ‘A heatwave occurs when the daily maximum temperature of more than five consecutive days exceeds the average maximum temperature by 5°Celsius’.

Keeping in view the devastation caused by the heatwave, Pakistan’s Ministry of Climate Change published a technical report to assess the reasons behind it. According to the report, ‘On the heat index scale, during this [heatwave] event in Karachi, the maximum temperature recorded was 44.8°C but the heat index was around 66°C on the peak heatwave day of June 20, 2015. The main causes of deaths identified were heatstroke and dehydration.’

It’s important to note that the situation was made more severe due to the Urban Heat Island (UHI) effect. This is a phenomenon whereby the increase of concrete structures and emissions from anthropogenic activities leads to the condensation of slightly warmer air over urbanised areas, when compared to surrounding rural areas. The UHI occurs in pockets, impacting the areas with less green spaces and places of low socioeconomic status such as slums. This contributed greatly to the 2015 heatwave event in Karachi.

India is also a victim of heatwaves. In May 2010, Ahmedabad suffered from a deadly heatwave which killed 1,344 people. This led to the first ever Heat Action Plan by the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation (AMC). During phase 1 of the Heat Action Plan, an evidence base was established to explore the reasons behind the mortalities caused by heatwave, whereas in phase 2 awareness raising was given particular attention. Alert levels were created to warn people beforehand about the heat intensity so that appropriate measures can be taken. The process was supported by the Climate Development Knowledge Network (CDKN), and public health and policy experts at the Indian Institute of Public Health, Gandhinagar; Public Health Foundation of India; Natural Resources Defense Council; and Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

In Pakistan, CDKN has undertaken a project to facilitate stakeholders in developing the heatwave management plan for Karachi city. The activities of this project include initiating a process at the local level to help the development of the heatwave management plan, in coordination with and through the consensus of all stakeholders.

To improve coordination and planning for heatwave management among various government departments and NGOs, two consultative workshops were held last year. According to Bilal Khalid, Focal Person for CDKN’s Pakistan Country Programme at LEAD Pakistan, ‘Fatal heatwave events often have gradual onset which prevents early detection. This has led to large scale causalities in recent past before the authorities were able to react. Hence the traditional reactive disaster response model is incompatible for managing heatwaves. There is a need to develop a proactive heatwave management plan that includes an early warning system and clear protocols for heatwave response. Such a plan will also require close coordination between the various institutions, since no government department can single-handedly tackle the challenge. Lastly there is need for capacity building and awareness raising of all concerned stakeholders to sensitise them about the risks and mitigations strategies for responding to heatwaves.’

This year, Karachi wasn’t affected by the UHI phenomenon but in order to avoid any possible heatwave event, the Pakistan Meteorological Department (PMD) took concrete measures by timely issuing heatwave warning alerts. According to Dr Ghulam Rasool, Director General of Pakistan Meteorological Department, ‘Pakistan Meteorological Department established Heatwave Early Warning Centres in Karachi which operated round the clock. Heatwave warnings were issued three days in advance and shared with all the local stakeholders. Also, warnings were shared on an hourly basis. Pakistan Meteorological Department and K-Electric also inked an agreement to coordinate closely in awareness raising campaigns and risk reduction. Pakistan Meteorological Department informed K-Electric about the heatwaves three days in advance and then on daily and hourly basis, so that load shedding was not done when there were chances of heatwave. This coordination worked well during the heatwave of 22-26 April 2016.’

When asked about the heatwave management plan for Karachi, Ajay Kumar, Assistant Director Operations of the Provincial Disaster Management Authority (PDMA) Sindh, said, ‘The heatwave management plan is a workable solution but it should be expanded beyond Karachi, to the entire province. Last year, heatwaves killed people not just in Karachi but in various other parts of Sindh as well.’

Ajay Kumar further added: ‘Beyond any doubt, a heatwave is an emergency and disaster situation, therefore Provincial Disaster Management Authority Sindh should take ownership of it.’ Ajay also suggested Provincial Disaster Management Authority Sindh to get views from all stakeholders once again before finalising the management plan. Bilal Khalid, Focal Person for CDKN’s Pakistan Country Programme, LEAD Pakistan, further supported the idea and said, ‘The heatwave management plan should be replicated to other cities of Pakistan as well. However, these plans should be sensitive to the local geography climate and socioeconomic conditions.’

CDKN is working to develop the next phase of the project, which involves the development of a heatwave management plan for Karachi. The management plan will support Karachi in mitigation of extreme heat impacts, by identifying context appropriate heat management and mitigation strategies, along with institutional frameworks to enable effective implementation.

Dealing with heatwaves is as important as dealing with poverty, food and water scarcity, diseases or floods. The most marginalised communities are most vulnerable to the phenomenon, and many of them are caught unaware of it. It is imperative for government, private sector, civil society and media organisations to sit together and finding innovative solutions to deal with it.

There’s very little time left: we have to act now!

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