Akhtar Soomro / Reuters

Heat waves are the Pakistani government’s problem

Blaming utility companies won’t prevent people from dying of heat

June 27, 2015 2:00AM ET

Since the onset of a vicious heat wave last week in Pakistan, temperatures in Karachi, Sindh province’s largest and most populous city, have dropped. But the death toll from the heat wave continues to climb, and has now surpassed 1,200. The chief minister of the province, Syed Qaim Ali Shah, appeared in the provincial assembly after the worst was over. Along with other members of his Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), Shah declared a protest sit-in against the federal government and K-Electric, the privately held company responsible for providing electricity to Karachi, thereby linking the deaths to K-Electric’s power outages.

Interruptions in the electricity provision and subsequent protests, especially during the summer when the demand for electricity far surpasses supply, are common in Pakistan. The problem with Shah’s decision to protest is that K-Electric’s power outages, while problematic, have little to do with the deaths, which resulted from a lack of awareness about heat stroke prevention techniques and an inability to rehydrate for those fasting during the month of Ramadan. 

It is useful to compare Europe's catastrophic heat wave in 2003. Nearly 15,000 people died in France alone, despite the fact that there were no power outages there. After the disaster passed, France had a chance to identify the statistically significant risk factors of the heat wave’s victims: Individuals with pre-existing medical conditions, manual workers, the elderly and homeless people were the most susceptible.

Hospital administrators and doctors in Karachi have loosely divided the victims into three similar groups: the elderly, daily-wage laborers and the homeless. It is evident that the latter two would not have been any better off had there been an uninterrupted electricity supply in Karachi. As for the first group, in France, people above the age of 65 years make up 17 percent of the population, compared to Pakistan’s meager 4 percent — a demographic makeup that may have largely curtailed the number of possible deaths.  

Why, then, is K-Electric being blamed for the rising death toll? Because pointing fingers is easier than finding solutions. The evasion of responsibility began at the top: Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif asked the National Disaster Management Authority to look into the matter, which passed on the job to the Karachi corps commander. (Pakistan’s army has always outperformed the civil government when it comes to managing emergencies.) While the military set up heat stroke centers across the province and equipped them with army doctors, the federal and provincial ministers led shouting matches in their respective assemblies. The leader of the opposition in the National Assembly, who also belongs to the PPP, lashed out against the federal government for the outages; opposition parties within the Sindh provincial assembly submitted a resolution condemning the provincial government and K-Electric for the deaths.

The minister of state for water and power then issued empty threats to take over K-Electric unless they improved their performance. And because no one likes being left out, the chief minister of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province threatened to burn down Pesco, the state-owned power supplier, unless power outages were curtailed.

Why is K-Electric being blamed for the rising death toll? Because pointing fingers is easier than finding solutions.

The chief minister and his government should be dealing with the crises instead of complaining. The situation is dire: On Monday a sign outside an Edhi morgue — one of the largest in the city — stated that it had reached full capacity and could not take in more bodies. Reporters said the bodies in morgues across the city were piled in layers of three. Outside morgues, corpses lie covered with flies.

Instead of making a scene, the minister and his government should regulate the hike in the price of graves and the price of ice, which is badly needed for treating heat stroke victims. They should look into the depleting infrastructure of government hospitals that operate under deplorable conditions and lack funding to buy supplies. The minister should address the fact that doctors have described many of the victims as “drug addicts and street beggars,” thereby strengthening class divides and making it easier for politicians to use the heat crisis for their own political gains. Lastly, a warning to the police force, which has pulled many of its men off the streets to protect them from the heat, may be in order: research about Europe’s heat wave also points to a possible hike in crime rates in heat wave affected cities.

And if Europe seems too far away to set an example, the government should look to India. Since neither country is well equipped to deal with large-scale medical disasters, prevention is the best option.

A semi-successful case can be seen in the Indian state of Odisha, which lost 2,042 of its residents to the 1998 heat wave but since then has drastically reduced casualties. The premise under which the state operates in such an emergency, as laid out by Richard Mahapatra, the senior editor of the Indian science and environmental online magazine Down to Earth, is that provincial government treats heat waves the way they would treat a flood or cyclone: Schools, colleges, government offices, public transport and public wage programs are closed between noon and 4 pm — the hottest hours of the day.

Moreover, as summer rolls around, public health centers in Odisha are instructed to be on alert for emergencies, and the government continuously issues advertisements that guide people on how to deal with the heat. In Ahmedabad cooling spaces and water stations are set up in public buildings during summer months. A siesta in the middle of the day can also help.

As the planet’s temperature rises, there is no way to ward off heat waves. That does not mean heat-related deaths aren’t a preventable public health disaster. They just take careful planning and consideration on part of the government.

Already, clerics are reminding Pakistan’s citizens that they can forego fasting if they find the rising temperatures to be life threatening. The government needs to spread this message; provide relief to the more than 500,000 homeless people in Karachi, as well as to daily-wage laborers; and strengthen their medical infrastructure and disaster response mechanisms. That will prove to be a much more effective solution than idly waiting for the monsoons, or complaining about power outages. It will also save lives. 

Maham Javaid is an independent journalist based in Brooklyn. Her reporting has also appeared in The Nation, Foreign Policy, Al Jazeera English, Women’s eNews and Herald. She holds a master’s degree in Near Eastern studies from NYU.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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