World

Extreme Heat, Fueled By Climate Change, Leaves More Than 800 Dead In Pakistan

CREDIT: AP

Family members rush a woman to a hospital suffering from heatstroke in Karachi, Pakistan, Tuesday, June 23, 2015. A scorching heat wave across southern Pakistan's city of Karachi has killed more than 700 people, authorities said Tuesday, as morgues overflowed with the dead and overwhelmed hospitals struggled to aid those clinging to life.

More than 800 have died from heat stroke and thousands more have been hospitalized as a heat wave scorches much of Pakistan with temperatures as high as 113 degrees. While officials have rolled out emergency response efforts, poor infrastructure and the unpredictable patterns of extreme weather have made the crisis particularly devastating.

Increasing heat waves, which are driven by climate change, are likely to cause more and more temperature related deaths around the world — and poor energy and health infrastructure will only deepen the threats faced by developing countries.

India is fraught with such infrastructure issues as well, and it too saw similar patterns of extreme weather — and extreme loss of life — in recent months.

Nearly 1,700 died in a heat wave that swept the India in May. As ThinkProgress previously reported, climate change is responsible for the majority of heatwaves around the world, and has already contributed to an increase in heat waves in India between 1961 and 2010.

The majority of those who have lost their lives due to heatstroke in Pakistan have been elderly or low-income residents of Karachi, Pakistan’s most populous city. The impact of the heat wave may be compounded by the fact that many in the Muslim-majority country are abstaining from food and water for Ramadan.

In recent years, Pakistan’s longstanding energy crisis has meant that people across the country face rolling power outages that can last 10 hours in urban areas, and up to 20 in rural ones.

The power outages mean that people are unable to run air-conditioners or even electric fans — and that they have little access to water, which is largely moved through pipes by electric pumps. In Karachi, electricity shortages kept the water supply system from pumping millions of gallons of water, according to the state-run water utility service.

“[T]he blame is squarely on the shoulders of the government for its lackluster performance in providing water and electricity,” according to an editorial in the Pakistani daily, The Nation.

Another editorial read, “A lot of people are going to die as a direct result [of extreme weather] — and our levels of preparedness are exposed as woefully inadequate.”

The city is even running out of room to hold the bodies of those who have died.

“The mortuaries have reached capacity,” a spokesman for the Edhi Foundation, one of the country’s largest welfare organizations said.

Volunteers arrange the lifeless bodies of heatstroke victims at a morgue of a charity group, in Karachi, Pakistan.

Volunteers arrange the lifeless bodies of heatstroke victims at a morgue of a charity group, in Karachi, Pakistan.

CREDIT: AP

He noted that the two morgues run by the Edhi Foundation had received more than 400 corpses in the last three days.

Kishwar Aftab’s sister-in-law was one of them.

“People don’t have electricity in their homes,” the Karachi resident who went to the morgue to prepare his sister-in-law’s body for burial said. “We didn’t have power for many hours in Moosa Colony. My sister-in-law had a high fever and she died.”

Aftab blamed the local electricity company, in which the government has a stake, for her death.

In a recent Pew survey, 90 percent of Pakistanis cited electricity shortages as a “very big problem” for their country. The issue ranked as a higher concern than unemployment, crime, inequality, health care, corruption, or sectarian violence.

While the government has launched efforts to manage the crisis, many see the government’s efforts to address the heat wave as too little too late. Protesters in Karachi and across Sindh have blocked streets and burned tires to protest the government’s inability to prevent the catastrophic loss of life.

Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif ordered the National Disaster Management Authority to take immediate action, and provincial and local authorities have similarly mobilized

“I want to inform you that a disaster management [system] already exists, not just for rains and storms but for such situations as well,” Syed Qaim Ali Shah, the Chief Minister of the Pakistani province of Sindh said on Tuesday.

He said that he had already directed local authorities to open heatstroke relief centers in the port city of Karachi – which has been the worst affected by the heat wave – as well as in other areas of the province.

“We are closing offices, schools and colleges not just in Karachi but throughout Sindh,” Shah said, noting that “offices that offer essential services like hospitals will remain open.”

These measures bear a stark contrast to ones taken to address the energy crises during the summer in 2013, when an interim government ordered air conditioners to be turned off to save electricity, and suggested that civil workers wear sandals without socks to beat the heat.

Some government officials have taken the energy issue far more seriously. The country’s Power and Water Minister told John Kerry during a visit the Secretary of State made to the Pakistani capital in August 2013 that the country’s energy crisis is “a bigger menace to our economy, to our existence, than the war on terror.”

 “[T]his problem of energy, the shortage of energy in Pakistan, has crippled our economy in the last 10 years,” he said, adding that it may be costing the country’s economy about $10 billion a year.

The scale of the issue is one reason why some experts have suggested Pakistan’s energy crisis could destabilize the country.

“Energy may well be the government’s undoing,” according to Michael Kugelman of the Woodrow Wilson Center. “Pakistan’s government, much like its general population, caught in the crosshairs of an energy crisis that Islamabad cannot control, could be in for some dark days,” he warned in a paper on the topic.

For now, the worst seems to have passed for Karachi, where a thunderstorm is on the forecast for Wednesday night.