Pakistan

Heat waves and the ticking climate bomb


The year 2022 has marked one of the worst heatwaves to hit South Asia, breaking the record for the hottest March the country of Pakistan has experienced. Jacobabad is a small city in the southern province of Pakistan that is known to reach high temperatures in summer and was no different in 2022 when the city hit 49C + on different occasions­. Heatwaves like these will become more frequent and severe as the global average temperatures exceed 1.5C. Pakistan is currently 1.2°C warmer (on average) compared to pre-industrial levels.

Northern Pakistan has the largest number of glaciers outside the world’s polar regions. The heat is exacerbating their rate of melting, and this could very well lead to floods worse than the one Pakistan experienced in 2010. Glacial Lake outburst floods (GLOF)— rapidly melting glaciers causing sudden release of water due to dam failure would become more common in Pakistan as the world warms. In 2022, a GLOF associated with Shishper glacier led to collapse of a bridge on Karakoram Highway (a road that connects Pakistan to China) when there was an unprecedented discharge of water from due to melting of the glacier. If these events become more common, we might not only have community relocations, infrastructure damage but serious food supply-chain risks too. The National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) of Pakistan are underfunded to deal with such extreme events and we need more of projects like the GLOF-II where local communities are empowered and well-equipped for a disaster response.

Rising temperatures have reduced crop-yield and most of southern Pakistan is under the process of desertification which involves land turning into desert due to sustained levels of low rainfall. Livestock has not been able to survive the unbearable heat and many domesticated animals have died, adding to the misery of the already struck farmers. In Cholistan alone, extreme heat waves and water scarcity caused the deaths of over 50 animals. This could have been avoided or at least cushioned if the local authorities took some responsibility of ensuring drinking water supply. The unbearable heat is made worse with water scarcity and lack of shade from trees. Many locals still use firewood to fire their stoves as they do not have better or cleaner alternatives. This usage of firewood has had a two-fold effect: 1) it has reduced the number of trees that could provide some shade to people working outside in the scorching heat and 2) it has disrupted the ecological system of the region with the unsustainable use of trees for stoves.

Lahore has now forecasted more than 212 days in the year where temperatures could cross 32C or more. These are up from 196 days from 1997 and current trends suggest that this increase will continue for a while even if the global emissions are cut down.

Pakistan has contributed little to global emissions and yet it is disproportionately affected by climate change. With its limited resources, Pakistan needs to focus more on climate adaptation. A significant amount of funds should go for helping vulnerable communities­ adapt to extreme weather conditions— these include families which are at risk of heatwaves, floods, droughts etc­—making them ‘climate-ready’. The country’s irrigation system is poor and a more efficient water sharing system is needed. Rather than natural gas, which is carbon intensive and the costs of putting pipelines to remote areas is high, solar powered stoves or other renewable energy alternatives can make a difference.

Shifting agricultural priorities is also important. For example, sugarcane is one of the most water-intensive crop and a 2020 study by Abedullah Anjum and Uzma Zia titled, ‘Unravelling Water Use Efficiency in Sugarcane and Cotton Production in Pakistan’* found that on average sugarcane contributes to 42% of the total annual household demand for water in Pakistan. There is no justification for a water scare country like Pakistan to extensively grow this crop, and I am not even mentioning the obesity and related conditions that comes with consuming it.

We need to try and test the adaptive methods which are better at reducing impact of heatwaves in south Asian countries. Certain adaptive measures might be suited to arid or semi-arid climates while others might fit better to humid climates. Rising temperatures would also mean that on average more households would need air conditioning on hotter days. The rising energy demand and our over-dependence on fossil fuels does not help as Pakistan also struggles with a current account deficit. ‘Load-shedding’ increases in summers with a combination of reduced power generation (lack of water in dams and other factors etc) and rising demand for air conditioning (AC). Our over-reliance on using ACs is more likely to fail as an adaptive measure for rising temperatures.

If annual global greenhouse gas emissions do not decline at a quicker rate, there will be many more Jacobabads in Pakistan and elsewhere. Pakistan needs to urgently introspect and come up with adaptive measures that can tackle the worsening extreme weather conditions such as the 2022 heatwave.

The writer is a PhD student at University of Cambridge. His research focuses on characterising anthropogenic air pollution particulates in urban microenvironments. He’s interested in climate change, air pollution and policy. He can be found on Twitter @hassanaftabs.


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