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  • Writer's pictureDr. Farrukh Chishtie

Heatwaves Strike Again!


Dr. Farrukh A. Chishtie

Sweltering heatwaves are sweeping across the globe with increasing frequency and intensity, causing widespread misery and posing severe risks to health and livelihoods. In 2024, countries around the world have faced unprecedented heat, prompting urgent discussions and actions about climate change, mitigation, and adaptation strategies.

Heatwaves have become a common occurrence in regions such as Europe, Asia, and Australia, with significant confidence in temperature extremes affecting Americas and medium confidence in Africa due to limited data availability. 2024 is turning out to be the worst year in terms of extreme temperatures and impacts of heatwaves across the globe including Pakistan. Climate change is behind this rise, and it refers to significant and lasting changes in the Earth's climate, particularly an increase in temperature and changes in weather patterns, primarily due to human activities. It encompasses global warming, but also includes other changes such as shifts in precipitation patterns, increased frequency of extreme weather events, and rising sea levels.  The long-term heating of Earth’s climate system is due to human activities, primarily the burning of fossil fuels, which increases greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere (see insert “What are heatwaves and why are they increasing?” for details).

This year, the annual Hajj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia turned deadly as an intense heatwave swept through Mecca, with temperatures soaring above 50°C (122°F). The extreme heat resulted in the deaths of over 1,300 pilgrims, making this one of the deadliest Hajj seasons on record. Many of the victims suffered from heat stroke and dehydration, exacerbated by the lack of adequate cooling facilities and the high density of pilgrims performing the rituals. During the five-day pilgrimage, the Grand Mosque in Mecca recorded temperatures as high as 51.8°C (125.2°F). The Saudi health ministry reported over 2,700 cases of heat exhaustion in a single day, highlighting the severe strain on both the pilgrims and the healthcare system. Most of the fatalities were among unregistered pilgrims, who lacked access to air-conditioned shelters and other essential services provided to those with official visas.

The deadly heatwave underscored the urgent need for improved infrastructure and emergency response systems to protect the millions of Muslims who undertake the Hajj each year. As climate change continues to increase the frequency and intensity of extreme heat events, it is critical for Saudi authorities to enhance cooling measures and provide better health services to prevent future tragedies.

Europe witnessed record-breaking temperatures that disrupted daily life and strained healthcare systems. In Spain, the 2024 summer heatwaves led to widespread forest fires, exacerbating air quality and causing evacuations in several towns. Similarly, in India, temperatures soared above 45°C in multiple states, leading to heat-related illnesses and deaths.

The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report highlights that human-induced climate change is the primary driver behind these extreme weather events. The report notes that without significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, the world will continue to experience more frequent and severe heatwaves, contributing to water scarcity, biodiversity loss, and food insecurity.

Ecosystem-based adaptation strategies have shown promise in building resilience against these climate risks. Protecting and restoring ecosystems can help communities adapt while also delivering benefits such as improved health outcomes, bolstered food security, and enhanced carbon sequestration. Indigenous knowledge and local community involvement are crucial for the success of these measures.

Heatwaves in Pakistan

In Pakistan, the situation is dire. The country is grappling with extreme heatwaves that have become a norm, particularly in urban areas like Karachi, Lahore, and Islamabad. These cities are experiencing temperatures regularly exceeding 40°C, exacerbated by the "urban heat island" effect, where densely built environments trap heat, making urban areas significantly warmer than their rural counterparts.

The impact of these heatwaves is severe, leading to heat-related illnesses and fatalities. For instance, in Karachi, the 2024 heatwave saw temperatures soaring above 45°C, causing widespread power outages and overwhelming healthcare facilities. The mortality rate has been significantly impacted, with the Edhi Foundation, Pakistan's largest ambulance service, noting a sharp increase in fatalities. In the past six days, the foundation has transported around 568 bodies to Karachi’s morgues. Notably, on Tuesday, June 25th witnessed the highest single-day death toll with 141 fatalities, as reported by BBC. The combination of high temperatures and frequent power cuts left many without relief, leading to heat strokes and other health complications. For individual safety, please see insert “How to survive heatwaves and heat strokes” for details.

Pakistan's vulnerability to climate change and heatwaves is further compounded by its limited capacity to adapt. The country's low forest cover, particularly in urban areas, exacerbates the heat island effect. Trees and green spaces, which can mitigate urban heat, are sparse. According to the IPCC, effective urban planning and increased afforestation are essential to counteract these effects and improve urban resilience.

Policy and Adaptation Measures

Despite the severe impacts, policy interventions in Pakistan remain inadequate. The IPCC report underscores the need for immediate and deep emission reductions to limit global warming to 1.5°C. However, adaptation efforts in Pakistan are fragmented and insufficient. Most adaptation actions are small-scale, sector-specific, and often poorly implemented. This lack of coordinated and comprehensive adaptation strategies leaves the country ill-prepared to handle the escalating climate crises.

The report also highlights the importance of international cooperation and financial support for adaptation efforts, particularly in developing countries like Pakistan. Climate finance is crucial to bridge the gap between planned adaptation measures and their implementation. Enhancing access to multilateral funds and promoting joint mitigation and adaptation projects can help countries like Pakistan build resilience against climate impacts.

Embracing Nature-Based Solutions for Heatwaves and Climate Change

The fight against heatwaves and broader climate change challenges necessitates a multifaceted approach, with nature-based solutions playing a pivotal role. Integrating these solutions, particularly indigenous tree plantation, offers a sustainable pathway to mitigating the impacts of extreme heat and fostering environmental resilience.

The Power of Nature-Based Solutions

Nature-based solutions harness the power of ecosystems to address societal challenges such as climate change, food security, and disaster risk. These solutions include the conservation, restoration, and sustainable management of natural environments, and they have been recognized for their effectiveness in mitigating climate impacts and enhancing community resilience. According to the World Resources Institute, ecosystem-based adaptation strategies can simultaneously deliver multiple benefits, including biodiversity conservation, improved health outcomes, and enhanced carbon sequestration. These strategies are cost-effective and can be implemented at various scales, from local community initiatives to national policies.

Indigenous Tree Plantation in Pakistan

For Pakistan, a country facing severe heatwaves and rapid urbanization, indigenous tree plantation emerges as a critical component of its climate adaptation strategy. Indigenous trees, which are native to the region, are better adapted to the local climate and soil conditions. They require less water and maintenance compared to non-native species and provide essential ecosystem services such as shade, air purification, and habitat for local wildlife. Prominent examples of indigenous trees suitable for urban and rural areas in Pakistan include the Neem (Azadirachta indica), Peepal (Ficus religiosa), and Banyan (Ficus benghalensis). These species are known for their extensive canopies and ability to thrive in hot climates, making them ideal for mitigating the urban heat island effect.

Benefits of Tree Plantation

Reducing Urban Heat: Trees provide shade and reduce temperatures through the process of evapotranspiration, where water is absorbed by the roots and released into the atmosphere through the leaves. This natural cooling effect can lower urban temperatures by several degrees, alleviating the stress on urban populations during heatwaves.

Improving Air Quality: Trees act as natural air filters, trapping pollutants such as dust, smoke, and particulates. They absorb carbon dioxide and release oxygen, contributing to cleaner air and better respiratory health for urban residents.

Enhancing Biodiversity: Indigenous tree plantations support local biodiversity by providing habitats for various species of birds, insects, and small mammals. This biodiversity is crucial for maintaining ecosystem balance and resilience.

Strengthening Community Resilience: Engaging local communities in tree plantation initiatives fosters a sense of ownership and stewardship over the environment. It also promotes community cohesion and provides opportunities for education and awareness about environmental conservation.

Mass Tree Plantation Campaigns and National Plantation Day

Pakistan's Billion Tree Tsunami initiative is a testament to the potential of large-scale tree plantation projects. Launched in 2014 in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, the project aimed to restore deforested landscapes and improve biodiversity. The initiative successfully planted over a billion trees, significantly increasing forest cover and providing a model for other regions to follow.

The success of the Billion Tree Tsunami has spurred similar initiatives across the country, including the nationwide Ten Billion Tree Tsunami program. These efforts highlight the importance of political will, community involvement, and sustained funding in achieving large-scale environmental restoration. Subh-e-Nau introduced the National Day of Plantation, which must be implemented alongside these strategies.

The integration of nature-based solutions, particularly indigenous tree plantation, is essential for addressing the dual challenges of heatwaves and climate change in Pakistan. These solutions offer a sustainable and cost-effective means of enhancing urban resilience, improving public health, and conserving biodiversity. By embracing the power of nature and fostering a culture of environmental stewardship, Pakistan can pave the way towards a more resilient and sustainable future. The global community must support such initiatives through financial aid, technical assistance, and policy frameworks that promote nature-based solutions. As the impacts of climate change intensify, the need for adaptive and proactive measures has never been more urgent. Through concerted efforts at local, national, and international levels, we can harness the resilience of nature to safeguard our planet and its inhabitants for generations to come.

Developing an Early Warning System for Heatwaves: Strategies for Adaptation in Pakistan

As climate change continues to intensify, the frequency and severity of heatwaves are expected to increase globally. In countries like Pakistan, where the effects of extreme heat are already profoundly felt, developing an effective early warning system (EWS) and implementing robust adaptation strategies are crucial for safeguarding public health and ensuring resilience against future heatwaves.

The Necessity of an Early Warning System

An EWS for heatwaves is an integrated system designed to predict extreme weather events and disseminate timely information to mitigate adverse impacts. In regions like Pakistan, where extreme heat can lead to significant health risks and economic disruptions, such a system is invaluable. The IPCC highlights that early warning systems can significantly reduce the adverse impacts of extreme weather events by providing timely and accurate information. An EWS can help communities prepare for heatwaves, enabling them to take preventive measures such as staying hydrated, seeking cool shelters, and avoiding strenuous activities during peak heat periods. This system involves several components: data collection and monitoring, forecasting, risk assessment, communication, and response.

Data Collection and Monitoring: The foundation of an effective EWS is the accurate and continuous collection of meteorological data. This includes temperature, humidity, wind speed, and solar radiation. In Pakistan, enhancing the network of weather stations and utilizing satellite data can improve the precision of heatwave forecasts.

Forecasting: Advanced forecasting models are essential for predicting the onset, duration, and intensity of heatwaves. Collaborations with international meteorological organizations and investing in state-of-the-art forecasting technology can enhance the predictive capabilities of Pakistan's Meteorological Department.

Risk Assessment: Identifying vulnerable populations and regions is critical for tailoring warnings and interventions. In Pakistan, urban areas with high population density, such as Karachi and Lahore, are particularly susceptible to the heat island effect, making risk assessment an essential component of the EWS.

Communication: The success of an EWS depends on the effective dissemination of warnings to the public and relevant authorities. Utilizing multiple communication channels, including television, radio, social media, and mobile alerts, ensures that timely warnings reach a broad audience.

Response: Developing community-based response plans and training local authorities in emergency management can enhance the effectiveness of the EWS. Establishing cooling centers, distributing water, and providing medical assistance during heatwaves are crucial response measures.

Adaptation Strategies for Heatwaves

In addition to an EWS, a comprehensive adaptation strategy is essential to mitigate the impacts of heatwaves in Pakistan. These strategies should encompass urban planning, infrastructure development, and public health interventions.

Urban Planning and Green Infrastructure: One of the most effective ways to combat the urban heat island effect is through the implementation of green infrastructure. Planting trees, creating green roofs, and developing urban parks can significantly reduce ambient temperatures in cities. The shade provided by trees and the cooling effect of green spaces can lower temperatures and improve air quality.

Water Management: Ensuring adequate access to water is crucial during heatwaves. Developing efficient water management systems, including rainwater harvesting, can provide a reliable water supply for cooling purposes. Public fountains and water distribution points in urban areas can help keep people hydrated during extreme heat.

Building Design: Incorporating passive cooling techniques in building design can reduce the need for energy-intensive air conditioning. Using reflective materials, improving insulation, and promoting natural ventilation are effective ways to keep buildings cool. In Pakistan, traditional architectural designs that utilize courtyards and thick walls can be adapted to modern buildings to enhance thermal comfort.

Public Health Interventions: Heatwaves pose significant health risks, particularly to vulnerable populations such as the elderly, children, and those with preexisting health conditions. Public health campaigns to raise awareness about the dangers of heatwaves and promote protective measures are vital. Additionally, training healthcare workers to recognize and treat heat-related illnesses can improve health outcomes.

Community Engagement: Engaging communities in the development and implementation of adaptation strategies is crucial. Local knowledge and participation can enhance the effectiveness of interventions. Community-based programs that involve residents in planting trees, maintaining green spaces, and monitoring heat-related health issues can foster resilience at the grassroots level.

Developing an early warning system for heatwaves and implementing comprehensive adaptation strategies are vital steps towards building resilience against climate change in Pakistan. These measures not only protect public health but also contribute to sustainable urban development and environmental conservation.

The challenges posed by climate change require a multi-faceted approach that combines technological innovation, community engagement, and policy support. By leveraging international cooperation, investing in green infrastructure, and fostering a culture of preparedness, Pakistan can mitigate the impacts of heatwaves and ensure a safer, more resilient future for its citizens.

Addressing the heatwave crisis in Pakistan requires a multifaceted approach. Deploying technology, increasing urban greenery through extensive tree planting campaigns, enhancing public awareness about climate change, and improving urban planning to reduce heat retention are critical steps. Moreover, integrating climate adaptation into national policies and ensuring that these strategies are well-funded and effectively implemented is essential.

In conclusion, the global and local impacts of heatwaves are a stark reminder of the urgent need for comprehensive climate action. By leveraging international cooperation, adopting ecosystem-based adaptation strategies, and prioritizing sustainable urban development, countries can better prepare for and mitigate the devastating effects of climate change.


What are heatwaves and why are they increasing?

Heatwaves Explained

A heatwave is a prolonged period of excessively hot weather, which may be accompanied by high humidity, especially in oceanic climate countries. These extreme weather events typically last several days or longer and can pose serious health risks, particularly for vulnerable populations such as the elderly, young children, and those with preexisting health conditions.

Characteristics of Heatwaves:

  • Duration: Heatwaves can last from a few days to several weeks.

  • Temperature: Temperatures during a heatwave are significantly higher than average for a given region and time of year.

  • Humidity: High humidity levels often accompany heatwaves, exacerbating the effects of high temperatures by making it feel even hotter.

  • Health Impacts: Heatwaves can lead to heat-related illnesses such as heat exhaustion, heat stroke, and dehydration. They also exacerbate existing health conditions.

The Role of Climate Change in the Rise of Heat Waves

The frequency and intensity of heat waves have been increasing at an alarming rate, and climate change is a major driving factor. Here's why:

  • Global Warming: The Earth's average temperature has risen due to increased greenhouse gas emissions. This warming enhances the likelihood of heat waves.

  • Weather Pattern Shifts: Climate change is altering global weather patterns, making prolonged periods of high pressure systems (which trap heat) more common.

  • Urban Heat Islands: Urban areas are getting hotter due to concrete and asphalt retaining heat, which is further intensified by global warming.

  • Feedback Loops: Higher temperatures can lead to more water evaporation and increased cloud cover, which in turn traps more heat, creating a feedback loop that amplifies warming.

Why Heat Waves Are Increasing

  • Increased Greenhouse Gases: The rise in CO2 and other greenhouse gases traps more heat in the atmosphere, leading to warmer temperatures.

  • Ice Melt: The melting of polar ice reduces the Earth's albedo (reflectivity), causing more solar energy to be absorbed and increasing global temperatures.

  • Deforestation: The loss of forests, which act as carbon sinks, contributes to higher CO2 levels and reduced cooling effects from transpiration.


How to survive heatwaves and heat strokes

Stay Hydrated:

  • Drink Plenty of Water: Aim to drink at least 8-10 glasses of water daily, more if you're active or outdoors. Avoid caffeine and alcohol as they can dehydrate you.

  • Electrolytes: Consider sports drinks or oral rehydration solutions to replace lost salts and minerals.

Keep Cool:

  • Stay Indoors: During peak heat hours (usually between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.), stay indoors in an air-conditioned environment.

  • Cool Showers and Baths: Take cool showers or baths to lower your body temperature.

  • Use Fans and Air Conditioning: Use fans and air conditioning to circulate cool air. If you don't have air conditioning, visit public places like shopping malls or libraries.

Dress Appropriately:

  • Lightweight Clothing: Wear lightweight, loose-fitting, and light-colored clothing to reflect heat and sunlight.

  • Hats and Sunglasses: Protect your head and eyes with a wide-brimmed hat and UV-protective sunglasses.

Avoid Strenuous Activity:

  • Limit Physical Activity: Avoid strenuous activities during the hottest parts of the day. Schedule exercise for cooler times, such as early morning or late evening.

  • Rest Frequently: Take frequent breaks if you must be outdoors.

Recognize and Treat Heat Stroke:

  • Symptoms: Look out for high body temperature (104°F or higher), altered mental state or behavior, nausea, and hot, dry skin.

  • Immediate Action: If you suspect heat stroke, move the person to a cooler environment, apply cool cloths or ice packs to their body, and seek emergency medical help immediately.

Stay Informed:

  • Weather Updates: Keep up-to-date with weather forecasts and heat advisories.

  • Community Resources: Know where to find cooling centers in your area and how to access community resources for vulnerable populations.

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