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‘Perfect climate storm’: Pakistan reeling from extreme heat | News on the climate crisis

Lahore, Pakistan – In the capital of Pakistan’s largest province, Punjab, residents such as Muhammad Junaid say the ongoing heatwave has felt “very sudden and unexpected”.

A tailor living in one of Lahore’s Katchi Abadis (slums), Junaid told Al Jazeera that temperatures of 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) and above, combined with hours-long power outages, created an “unbearable” situation at home.

“We are eight people living in three rooms… The children are easily frustrated by this heat and the load shedding [power outages]… Sometimes they can’t stop crying,” he said.

Since April, South Asian countries have been experiencing an unpredictable heat wave that has seen some areas reach 50°C (104°F).

“This is a freak weather phenomenon that has completely wiped out the spring season in Pakistan,” former climate change minister Malik Amin Aslam told Al Jazeera.

Speaking by phone from the capital Islamabad, Aslam said temperatures were “6-7° warmer than normal at this time. What we are seeing happening is definitely due to climate change,” he said. -he adds.

A Lahore resident using a water tap to cool off amid an ongoing heat wave in many parts of Pakistan [Usaid Siddiqui/Al Jazeera]

Scientists have long warned that the climate crisis will bring more intense weather, including floods, droughts and heat waves.

A United Nations agency reported earlier this week that key indicators of climate change – including greenhouse gas concentrations and ocean heat – were higher compared to 2021.

“The global energy system is broken and bringing us ever closer to climate catastrophe,” the World Meteorological Organization said.

8th most affected country

According to the Global Climate Risk Index published by non-profit group GermanwatchPakistan is one of the most vulnerable countries in the world to the effects of climate change over the past two decades.

Between 2000 and 2019, the German-based organization ranked Pakistan as the 8th worst-affected country. During that period, the subcontinent nation lost an average of 500 lives a year, or 10,000 over the entire period, the group said.

One of the most alarming effects of the “scorching” heat wave is the accelerated melting of Pakistan’s glaciers in the north, according to Aslam.

Earlier this month, the Hassanabad Bridge in the northern Hunza Valley was destroyed due to a burst flood from Glacial Lake to Shisper Glacier – leading to flash floods – and leaving tourists and locals blocked.

“Last year we [the previous government] had made special drainage channels around the glacier to allow for drainage – but the burst of the lake was so huge that it also went through it,” Aslam said.

Pakistan has more than 7,000 ice cream parlors – one of the highest numbers in the world – many of them in the Himalayan region.

A University of Leeds study published in December found that Himalayan glacier ice was melting “at least 10 times the average rate for centuries past” due to human-induced climate change.

Additionally, the researchers reported that the Himalayas, which also covers other South Asian countries such as Nepal and India, had lost 40% of its ice over several hundred years.

“What Pakistan is experiencing is a perfect weather storm,” Aslam said. “It’s very alarming and there’s nothing we can do about it. The country can’t just go out and turn off the greenhouse gases.

Effect on crops

Experts have warned that the unexpected heat wave is also affecting the country’s agricultural sector.

Amanullah Khan, head of the environment and climate change unit at the United Nations Development Program in Pakistan, told Al Jazeera while the country’s cultures are used to high temperatures, the problem was that the wave Heat came earlier than expected.

“It’s not like agriculture in this country hasn’t experienced temperatures of 41°C or 43°C – the problem is that crops need certain temperatures at a certain time in their growth,” he said from Islamabad.

“If the heat comes earlier than usual, it will manifest in the country which will not produce good crops like wheat,” Khan noted, adding that Pakistan was importing wheat last year, although it has been a net exporter for many years. He cited climate change as one of the main reasons.

A vegetable seller waits for customers
A vegetable vendor waits for customers to sell his produce in Lahore [Usaid Siddiqui/Al Jazeera]

Meanwhile, the mango harvest in Pakistan has also been affected, with some local experts claim a drop nearly 60% of production.

The chief boss of the Fruit and Vegetable Exporters, Importers and Traders Association of Pakistan, Waheed Ahmed, told Al Jazeera that his group had cut its export target by 25,000 tonnes this season, a drop of 20%.

Speaking from Lahore, Ahmed added that similar shortfalls can be expected later this year in the “production of green vegetables, sugar cane and other crops”.

In addition, Ahmed said persistent water shortages further aggravate food security in the country.

Earlier this month, Pakistan was ranked among the top 23 countries in the world by the UN faced with drought emergencies over the past two years.

The report published by the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification states that droughts – the result of low rainfall and exacerbated by above normal temperatures – have been a major factor in “crop yield volatility”, leading to low yields and leading to “substantial financial losses”.

‘No choice’

Junaid, the tailor, said unlike wealthier households, he and his family had few financial resources to mitigate the effects of the heatwave, made worse by ongoing power cuts in the province and elsewhere.

“We don’t have money to buy an air conditioner. We rely on fans and cheap coolers…but when there is no power for several hours, we have nothing to cool ourselves down. We just have to live with it,” he lamented.

“We can’t afford an inverter [uninterruptible power supply] or generator as backup when load shedding begins.

Muahmmad Zubair cuts ice to stay cool
Muhammad Zubair breaks a block of ice to use for cooling purposes outside his tea stall in Lahore, Pakistan [Usaid Siddiqui/Al Jazeera]

A climate study published in February found in the 2010s exposure to heat waves for the “poorest quarter of the world… was more than 40% higher than that of the wealthiest quarter,” citing a lack of access to coping facilities at heat such as air conditioning and the resources to run them.

“Adaptation measures, such as cooling centers…can reduce the impact of heat exposure on a population. However, a country’s ability to implement adaptation measures generally depends on its financial resources, governance, culture and knowledge. Poverty affects everyone,” the authors wrote for news outlet and research journal The Conversation.

Nevertheless, for low-income workers in Pakistan who work outdoors, the heat wave is a secondary concern.

“We have no choice but to keep working the same long hours no matter how hot it is…to support our families,” Muhammad Zubair, a tea seller told Al Jazeera. , adding that his regular 10-12 hour work days remain unchanged.

Arshad, a day laborer who earns between 500 and 1,200 rupees a day ($2 to $6) told Al Jazeera that the government should guarantee continued employment to temporary workers like him.

The father-of-three said he had been unable to find gainful employment for nine consecutive days between April and May, while sitting outside for eight or nine hours at a busy junction in Lahore, hoping someone one would hire him.

“The heat is bad but it will always be there… It can’t stop us from trying not to be hungry.”