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Pakistan is hit by extreme heat, fears of rain

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Almost everywhere in Karachi, there are signs of the heat wave scorching this sun-baked city.

Hundreds of patients with heat-related illnesses are pouring into hospitals every day, stretching them far beyond their capacity, and morgues are overwhelmed and struggling to find space as bodies pour in.

Frustrated residents began blocking roads with rocks and sticks to protest against power and drinking water shortages. Even normally bustling markets and streets were deserted as people stayed away from their homes unless they had to.

Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city and economic hub, is the latest region in South Asia to be stricken by blistering heat this summer, a grim reminder of the toll climate change is taking on a region particularly vulnerable to its impacts, and in a country where ineffective governance and wide economic disparities exacerbate suffering for its poorest citizens.

Late last month, eight straight days of particularly bad weather reached 104 degrees Fahrenheit (40 degrees Celsius), with high humidity exacerbating the misery. It was the hottest since 2015, when more than 1,200 people died in Karachi, according to official reports.

With temperatures still hovering around 100 degrees Fahrenheit, the sense of crisis remains.

“It feels like living in a furnace,” said Akbar Ali, a 52-year-old rickshaw driver who has taken dozens of people suffering from heat stroke to hospital in recent weeks. “It’s horrible to see people collapsing on the street.”

Karachi, a port city on the Arabian Sea, is known for its scorching summers and monsoon flooding. Such extreme weather is particularly unbearable for the 60 percent of residents who live in the city’s sprawling slums, where homes are crudely built of concrete or tarpaulin and roads are unpaved.

But this summer has been particularly bad. During the sweltering heat of June 23 to June 30, the city’s largest morgue received three times as many bodies as usual, according to the Edhi Foundation, a charity known for its extensive morgue operations and large ambulance fleet.

In total, the charity’s morgue received around 700 bodies over those eight days. While the cause of death was not always clear, the time of death was revealing.

“This is a humanitarian crisis, but many deaths related to heat waves will not be officially recorded as heat deaths,” Erum Haideris an academic at the College of Worcester who has studied Karachi’s civic challenges. “These disasters are often categorised as ‘fever’, ‘heart attack’ or ‘infant death’, which obscures the true impact.”

In recent weeks, power outages have become common in the slums, lasting between six and 16 hours, leaving millions without fans to relieve stress (air conditioning is rare). Residents’ frustration with the blackouts has prompted them to frequently block main roads in protest.

“Power outages during a heatwave are devastating for everyone in these communities, but especially for infants, the elderly and pregnant women,” Ms Hyde said.

Water has also become scarce. Many communities face severe water shortages, and the lack of clean drinking water has turned into a public health crisis. In Karachi, a significant portion of the population relies on buying water from private companies via tanker trucks, as the city’s water infrastructure cannot meet the needs of all residents. During the summer, even areas that normally have piped water are forced to buy water due to shortages. Tanker truck prices have skyrocketed, adding to the burden on already struggling communities.

“The price of water tankers has doubled or even tripled,” said Mehmood Siddiqui, a private school teacher who earns $143 a month. “Last month a tanker was $14 and now it’s $28. It’s outrageous.”

Hospitals were filled with patients suffering from heat stroke and severe dehydration.

“Patients are reporting high fever, weakness, gastroenteritis, vomiting and diarrhoea in numbers far exceeding normal levels,” said Nasreen Gul, a nurse at Jinnah Postgraduate Medical Centre, the city’s largest state hospital.

Government officials have sought to downplay reports of mass heatwave deaths. Karachi Commissioner Hasan Naqvi said the number of heat-related deaths was low, citing data from government hospitals.

Government officials set up cooling centers throughout the city. Charity groups also provided some relief to residents, setting up roadside camps and providing spray and cups of cool water or Ruafzaa popular summer drink in South Asia.

Thursday’s rains, which brought midday temperatures to 104 degrees Fahrenheit in Karachi, provided some relief, but they also highlighted the city’s vulnerability to another major summer weather problem: devastating floods.

“We can pray for rain to cool down the temperature,” said Ali Afzal, 44, a car mechanic in Karachi whose house was destroyed in the quake. Urban flooding in July 2022 “But more rain brings another challenge, especially for city dwellers who are ill-prepared.”

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