Heat waves and the climate bomb ticking time

PUBLISHED June 12, 2022


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

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

Rising temperatures have reduced crop yields and most of southern Pakistan is undergoing desertification, which involves the land turning into desert due to sustained levels of low rainfall. Livestock could not survive the unbearable heat and many domestic animals died, adding to the misery of already stricken farmers. In Cholistan alone, extreme heat waves and water scarcity have caused the death of more than 50 animals. This could have been avoided or at least mitigated if the local authorities had taken some responsibility for ensuring the supply of drinking water. The unbearable heat is made worse by the scarcity of water and the lack of shade from the trees. Many locals still use firewood to light their stoves because they have no better or cleaner alternatives. This use of firewood had a double effect: 1) it reduced the number of trees that could provide shade for people working outdoors in the scorching heat and 2) it disrupted the ecological system of the region with the unsustainable use of trees for stoves.

Lahore has now predicted over 212 days in the year when temperatures could cross 32C or more. These are up from 196 days in 1997 and current trends suggest that this increase will continue for some time even if global emissions are reduced.

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 be dedicated to helping vulnerable communities adapt to extreme weather conditions – including families at risk of heat waves, floods, droughts, etc. – by 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 has high pipeline laying costs in remote areas, solar-powered stoves or other renewable energy alternatives can make a difference.

Changing agricultural priorities is also important. For example, sugarcane is one of the most water-intensive crops and a 2020 study by Abedullah Anjum and Uzma Zia entitled, ‘Unraveling water use efficiency in sugar cane and cotton production in Pakistan* found that on average, sugarcane contributes 42% of the total annual household water demand in Pakistan. There is no justification for a water-scarce country like Pakistan to cultivate this crop extensively, and I am not even mentioning the obesity and related conditions that accompany its consumption.

We need to try and test the adaptive methods that are more effective in reducing the impact of heat waves in South Asian countries. Some adaptation measures might be suitable for arid or semi-arid climates while others might be better suited for humid climates. Rising temperatures would also mean that, on average, more households would need air conditioning on the hottest days. Growing demand for energy and our overreliance on fossil fuels don’t help, as Pakistan is also struggling with a current account deficit. “Load shedding” increases in summer with a combination of reduced power generation (lack of water in dams and other factors, etc.) and increasing demand for air conditioning (AC). Our overreliance on the use of air conditioners is more likely to fail as a measure of adaptation to rising temperatures.

If annual global greenhouse gas emissions don’t decline at a faster rate, there will be many more Jacobabads in Pakistan and elsewhere. Pakistan urgently needs to do some soul-searching and come up with adaptation measures that can cope with worsening extreme weather conditions such as the 2022 heat wave.

The author is a PhD student at the University of Cambridge. His research focuses on the characterization of anthropogenic air pollution particles in urban microenvironments. He is interested in climate change, air pollution and politics. He can be found on Twitter @hassanaftabs.