Heatwave kills hundreds in troubled Pakistan

A vicious heatwave has hit Pakistan, with over 800 deaths amid temperatures of 45°C. How much worse do disasters affect poor countries, and are they political, as well as physical, events.

Pakistan has had a decade of disasters. The country was hit by an earthquake in 2005, and heavy monsoon rains caused devastating floods in 2010. Now it is facing another physical terror: extreme heat. An unusually baking summer has led to the deaths of over 800 people, with temperatures soaring to 45°C. ‘It’s so hot that I can barely speak,’ one man said.

The heatwave has hit the province of Sindh in the southeast of the country, on the border with India. The country’s biggest city, Karachi, a sprawling, semi-lawless port of 20 million people, has been worst affected. Power cuts have prevented the use of air conditioning units and fans and public services are stretched beyond their limit. Riots and protests have broken out in the city.

The Islamic holy month of Ramadan started last Thursday, meaning that adult Muslims who are not ill must abstain from eating or drinking from dawn until dusk, and many think this has exacerbated the disaster.

The most disturbing scenes have come from Karachi’s morgue. At least 650 bodies have been brought there in the last five days. The power outages mean it is unable to maintain the correct temperature. The stench is said to be overwhelming. The Jinnah Postgraduate Medical Centre has said that it has admitted around 5,000 people with heat-related symptoms. Karachi is struggling to cope.

Oppressive heat is a regular feature of many countries’ summers, but it is poor nations like Pakistan that suffer the most from natural disasters. People cannot easily travel away from the worst affected areas and public services are far less developed. In Pakistan there is one doctor for every 1,200 people. The USA, another country where summers can be blazingly hot, has one doctor for every 400 people. People in rich countries rely on the availability of air conditioning and clean drinking water as a matter of course; many of those who have died in Pakistan did not have those luxuries.

Boiling over

Everything, even natural disasters, comes down to politics and wealth. If Pakistan was a rich country with robust public services it would be able to combat the forces of nature. Natural disasters kill far more in poor countries than in well-off ones. Everything possible must be done to give Pakistan the same kind of public services that other countries take for granted. Once again, it is the poor who are suffering the most.

Nature does not care whether you are rich or poor, say others. It is tempting to try to reduce every bad event into something that we humans can solve. But this is simply not possible with the heat of the sun. While circumstances in Pakistan may not have helped, no human is designed to live in temperatures of 45°C.

You Decide

  1. Should we partly blame human beings for natural disasters?
  2. Why do natural disasters in poor countries get so much less coverage than those in rich countries?

Activities

  1. Imagine you are a British person in Pakistan at the time of the heatwave. Write an account of your experiences.
  2. Pick two natural disasters: one in a rich country and one in a poor country. Compare how each country coped with the event.

Some People Say...

“There’s no such thing as a ‘natural disaster.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Why is extreme heat dangerous?
The body’s normal temperature is 37-38°C. If it gets hotter than that the brain tells the muscles to slow down and you start to feel tired. At anything above 41°C the body starts to shut down. Chemical processes start to be affected, cells inside the body deteriorate and there is a risk of multiple organ failure. Blood flow to the skin stops, meaning sweating to cool the body down is impossible.
What should I do if I get caught in these temperatures?
Wear loose, damp clothes which will lower your body’s temperature. If you have a fan, place it by an open window as this will draw in cooler outside air. Putting your hands in cold water is a good idea. And if you are having a shower, a lukewarm one is a better idea than a cold one.

Word Watch

Earthquake in 2005
A quake registering a moment magnitude of 7.6 hit the mountainous region of Kashmir in northern Pakistan in October 2005. Around 87,000 people died.
Floods in 2010
Around 1,800 people died as heavy monsoon rains flooded the basin of the Indus river, the longest in the country. Approximately one-fifth of Pakistan’s total land area was underwater.
Sindh
A region of 43 million people, Sindh is a mainly fertile region along the Indus River. It is slightly bigger than England in size.
Semi-lawless
The largest city in the Muslim world has been a hotbed of violence in recent years. Gang shootings, political disturbances and even suicide bombings have led to Karachi having by far the highest murder rate of any of the world’s 13 biggest cities.
Ramadan
A senior Islamic cleric has issued a rare fatwa (a religious ruling) allowing people to break their fast during the heatwave. Mohammad Naeem said ‘If an expert doctor says that your life is threatened due to the heat, or some condition you may have is going to get worse because of fasting, then you can forego the daily fast.’

Subjects

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