In the hottest city in the world, mothers are the first victims of climate change

  • Jacobabad in Pakistan reaches 51 Celsius (124 Fahrenheit)
  • Women particularly vulnerable to oppressive heat – studies
  • Pregnant women even more at risk, scientists warn
  • Photo report WIDER IMAGE:

JACOBABAD, Pakistan, June 14 (Reuters) – Heavily pregnant Sonari toils in the scorching sun in fields dotted with bright yellow melons in Jacobabad, which last month became the hottest city on the planet.

Her 17-year-old neighbor Waderi, who gave birth a few weeks ago, is back at work in temperatures that could exceed 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit), with her newborn baby lying on a blanket in the shade outside. nearby so she can feed him when he cries.

“When the heat comes and we’re pregnant, we feel stressed,” said Sonari, who is in her mid-20s.

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These women in southern Pakistan and millions more like them around the world are at the forefront of climate change.

Pregnant women exposed to heat for long periods of time have a higher risk of suffering complications, according to an analysis of 70 studies conducted since the mid-1990s on the issue.

For every 1 degree Celsius rise in temperature, the number of stillbirths and premature deliveries increases by about 5%, according to the meta-analysis, which was carried out by several research institutes around the world and published in the British Medical Journal in September 2020.

Cecilia Sorensen, director of the Global Consortium on Climate and Health Education at Columbia University, said the impact of global warming on women’s health was “very under-documented”, in part because extreme heat tended to exacerbate other conditions.

“We don’t associate impacts on women’s health and often that’s because we don’t collect data on it,” she said. “And often poor women don’t seek medical care.”

“Heat is a big problem for pregnant women.”

Women are particularly vulnerable to rising temperatures in poor countries on the frontlines of climate change, as many have no choice but to work during pregnancy and shortly after giving birth, according to interviews with over a dozen women residing in the Jacobabad region as well as half a dozen development and human rights experts.

Further adding to the risks, women in socially conservative Pakistan – and many other places – typically cook family meals over hot stoves or open fires, often in cramped rooms with no ventilation or cooling.

“If you’re cooking indoors next to a hot open fire, you have this burden of that heat on top of the ambient heat which makes it even more dangerous,” Sorensen added.


South Asia has experienced abnormally hot temperatures in recent months. An extreme heat wave that scorched Pakistan and India in April was 30 times more likely to occur due to climate change, according to scientists from World Weather Attribution, an international research collaboration. Global temperatures have risen about 1.2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Read more

As temperatures continue to rise, extreme heat waves are only expected to increase.

The approximately 200,000 residents of Jacobabad are well aware of its reputation as one of the hottest cities in the world.

“If we go to hell, we’ll take a blanket,” is a common joke told in the area.

Few places are more punitive. Last month, temperatures reached 51 degrees Celsius (124 degrees Fahrenheit) on May 14, which local weather officials said was highly unusual for this time of year. Tropical rains can also conspire with warm Arabian Sea winds to raise humidity later in the year.

The more humid it is, the more difficult it is for people to cool off by sweating. These conditions are measured by “wet bulb temperatures”, taken by a thermometer wrapped in a damp cloth. Wet bulb temperatures of 35°C or higher are considered the limit of human survival.

Jacobabad has crossed that threshold at least twice since 2010, according to regional weather data. And, globally, these “extreme humid heat events” have more than doubled in frequency over the past four decades, according to a May 2020 study in the journal Science.

Sonari, who is in her twenties, and Waderi work alongside a dozen other women, several of them pregnant, in the melon fields about 10 km from the center of Jacobabad.

They start work each day at 6am with a short break in the afternoon for housework and cooking before returning to the field to work until sunset. They describe leg pain, fainting and discomfort while breastfeeding.

“It feels like no one sees them, no one cares about them,” aid worker Liza Khan said more broadly of the plight faced by many women in Jacobabad and the wider Sindh region. , straddling the border of Pakistan and India.

Khan’s phone rings constantly as she visits one of three heatstroke response centers she has helped set up in recent weeks as part of her work with a group in nonprofit called Community Development Foundation.

A finance graduate, Khan has lived in cooler towns in Pakistan but returned to her hometown because she wanted to be a voice for women in the conservative region.

“Today I work 24/7,” the 22-year-old said, adding that her organization is seeing the impact of the blistering heat increasingly intertwine with other social and health problems affecting women.

GRAPHIC-Scorching South Asia:


The harsh conditions faced by many women were tragically highlighted on May 14, with daytime temperatures in Jacobabad reaching 51C, making it the hottest city in the world at that time.

Nazia, a young mother of five, was cooking lunch for her visiting cousins. But without air conditioning or a fan in her kitchen, she collapsed and was taken to a nearby hospital, where she was pronounced dead of suspected heat stroke.

District health officials did not respond to requests for comment on Jacobabad’s toll on heat-related deaths in recent years, or specifically Nazia’s case.

Her body was taken the following day to her ancestral village for burial and her children, the youngest of a year who is still breastfeeding, regularly mourn their mother, a relative said.

Widespread poverty and frequent power cuts mean that many people cannot afford or use air conditioning or even sometimes a fan for cooling.

Potential strategies recommended by experts include providing clean energy stoves to replace open fire cooking, providing medical and social services to women in the early morning or evening when it is cooler, and replacing roofs sheet metal by a cooler material in white to reflect solar radiation away from the home.

Climate Change Minister Sherry Rehman told Reuters women were likely to be most affected by rising temperatures as they continued to scorch the country, adding that climate change policies in the future must respond. to the specific needs of women.

“A megatrend like climate change… poses a significant threat to the well-being of powerless women in rural areas and urban slums,” she added. “Pakistani women, especially on the fringes, will be the most affected.”

Some in Jacobabad find it infuriating that Pakistan is only responsible for a fraction of the greenhouse gases emitted in the industrial age that are now warming the atmosphere.

“We are not contributing to the aggravation, but we are on the front line when it comes to the suffering,” said Hafeez Siyal, the city’s deputy commissioner.


In a residential part of town, a donkey cart stacked with blue plastic jerrycans stops near the entrance to warren-like alleys leading to a cluster of houses. The cart driver drives back and forth to deliver 20-liter cans of water from one of several dozen private pumps in the city.

Most Jacobabad residents depend on these water deliveries, which can cost between a fifth and an eighth of a meager household income. However, this is often not enough and some families are forced to ration themselves.

For young mother Razia, the sound of her six-month-old Tamanna crying in the afternoon heat was enough to persuade her to pour some of her precious water over the baby. She then sat Tamanna in front of a fan, and the child was visibly calmer, playing with her mother’s scarf.

Local officials said the water shortages were partly due to power cuts, which means water cannot be filtered and sent through pipes throughout the city. There are also severe water shortages in Sindh, with Climate Change Minister Rehman reporting shortages of up to 60% of the needs of major dams and canals in the province.

Rubina, Razia’s neighbor, fried onions and okra over an open fire, explaining that she usually felt dizzy from the heat and tried to dunk herself in water every time she cooked to avoid getting wet. pass out.

However, there was not always enough water to do so.

“Most of the time it ends before it’s time to buy more and we have to wait,” Rubina said as she closely watched her children and grandchildren sharing a cup of water. “On hot days without water or electricity, we wake up and the only thing we do is pray to God.”

($1 = 197.6000 Pakistani rupees)

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Charlotte Greenfield reported from Jacobabad and Gloria Dickie from London; Editing by Mike Collett-White, Katy Daigle and Pravin Char

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