JACOBABAD, Pakistan – The water sellers are hot, thirsty and exhausted. It’s 9 am and the sun is already unforgiving. The water sellers queue in long lines and quickly fill dozens of 5-gallon bottles from a water station, pumping filtered groundwater. Some are old, many are young, others are children. Every day, they line up at one of the 12 private stations in this city in southern Pakistan and buy water to sell water to locals. Then they drive off in their motorcycle-powered or donkey-run carts and meet the basic drinking and bathing needs of one of the hottest cities in the world.
Jacobabad, a city of 300,000, is ground zero of a warming planet. It is one of two cities on Earth that has passed heat and humidity thresholds that are hotter than the human body can handle. But it is arguably the most vulnerable to climate change. Heat exhaustion and heat stroke are a daily obstacle the city’s largely poor residents navigate, in addition to a water crisis and power outages that last 12-18 hours a day. Most save up to buy a single solar panel to cool their homes with a fan. But the city’s policy makers are not prepared, nor are they planning for a large-scale heatwave.
The private water station that VICE World News visited is run by a businessman who sits in the shade while watching the sellers squabble for their turn. He didn’t want to share his name because his business falls into a grey area of regulation. The city administration turns a blind eye to the private water sellers and water station owners, because they are meeting a basic need, but technically they are exploiting a water crisis. Pakistan is the third most water-stressed country in the world, and the situation is much more dire in Jacobabad.
The station owner said that at night, he sleeps in air-conditioning, while his family lives 250 miles away. “It’s too hot for them to live here,” he told VICE World News while claiming the city’s piped water is unreliable and filthy that’s why people buy from him. He said his take home is $2,000 a month. On good days, the water sellers, who buy from him and sell to locals, make enough profit to keep them right above Pakistan’s poverty line.
“I’m in the water business because I don’t have a choice,” an 18-year-old water seller, who preferred not to share his name because of privacy concerns, told VICE World News as he filled his blue water canisters from a pipe at the water station. “I am educated. But there are no jobs here for me.” He said he often sells water canisters for 5 cents or 10 rupees, half the price of other sellers, because his customers are poor like him. A third of Jacobabad’s population lives in poverty.
In many ways Jacobabad seems stuck in the past, but the makeshift privatisation of basic utilities such as water and power here, provide a peek into a future where heatwaves will become more common across the world.
The city is currently experiencing an unprecedented 11-week-long heatwave, with temperatures averaging 47°C. Its local weather station has already recorded 51°C or 125°F a few times since March.
“The heatwave is silent. You sweat, but it evaporates and you don’t feel it. Water is being severely depleted from your body, but you don’t feel it. You don’t really feel the heat. But it suddenly makes you collapse,” Iftikhar Ahmed, who is a weather observer with Pakistan’s meteorological department in Jacobabad, told VICE World News. “It’s never been this hot for this long. It’s 48C right now, but it feels like it’s 50C (or 122F). And it will stay like this till September.”
No one knows Jacobabad’s weather better than Ahmed. He’s been recording the city’s temperature every day for more than 10 years. Ahmed’s office has a hundred-year old British barometer, a relic from this city’s past. For centuries, the Indigenous Peoples in this arid part of southern Pakistan, retreated from the brutal summers here and only came back in winter. Geographically, Jacobabad falls under the Tropic of Cancer, and the Sun is directly overhead in summer. But 175 years ago, when this area was under the British empire, an administrator named Brigadier-General John Jacob built a canal. A perennial rice farming community slowly developed around the water source. The city built around it is named after him: Jacobabad means Jacob’s settlement.
The city wouldn’t have attracted the global attention it did without the 2020 ground-breaking research of Tom Matthews, a leading climate scientist who teaches at King’s College in London. He observed that Pakistan’s Jacobabad and UAE’s Ras al Khaimah had already experienced lethal humid heat or wet bulb temperatures of 35°C a few times. That was decades before scientists had predicted the planet would break the 35°C threshold – exposure to which, for a few hours, is fatal. The human body cannot sweat fast enough or drink enough water fast enough to recover from that kind of humid heat.
“Jacobabad and its surrounding Indus Basin is an absolute hotspot for climate change impacts,” Matthews told VICE World News. “When you look at some of the things to worry about – from water security to extreme heat, you lay on top of that a vulnerable population – it’s really on the frontline globally.”
But Matthews also warned that the 35°C is a fuzzy threshold in reality. “The impact of extreme humid heat manifests well before that threshold is crossed,” he said from his home in London. “Many people won’t be able to dissipate enough heat depending on what they are doing, in wet bulb temperatures well below that threshold.”
Matthews said the kind of humid heat Jacobabad has recorded is very difficult to deal with without turning air conditioning on. But because of Jacobabad’s power crisis, he said underground cold refuges are another way to weather extreme heat. However, this comes with its own risks. Heatwaves often end with heavy rain that could flood underground refuges.
There are no easy solutions to Jacobabad’s future humid heatwaves, but according to climate projections they are imminent. “By the end of the century if we get to 4C of global warming then there will be areas in the South Asia region, the Persian Gulf region, and the North China Plain region that would cross that 35 C limit. Not every year, but a bad heatwave would take quite large regions across it,” warned Matthews.
Extreme weather isn’t a new story in Pakistan. But the frequency and scale of it is unprecedented.
“The difference between day temperatures and night temperatures is lessening across Pakistan, which is alarming,” Dr Sardar Sarfaraz, Pakistan’s Chief Meteorologist, told VICE World News. “Secondly, the rainfall patterns are changing. Sometimes you get heavy rain like we got in 2020, with massive urban flooding in Karachi. And sometimes you get drought-like situations. For example this year, February to May, four consecutive dry months, were the driest months in the history of Pakistan.”
This year’s dry heat has been bad for crops but less lethal for people. In 2015, a humid heatwave killed 2,000 across Pakistan’s Sindh province, which Jacobabad belongs to. In 2017, climate scientists from MIT, built simulations based on current weather patterns and greenhouse emissions that predicted “deadly heatwaves in the densely populated agricultural regions of South Asia,” by the late 21st century. Jacobabad isn’t mentioned by name in their report, but the city pops a hazardous red in their maps.
The brutality of the climate crisis hits you in the face in Jacobabad. The dangerous summers coincide with peak rice harvest season and maximum power outages. But for many, leaving is not an option.
Khair Bibi, a rice farmer, lives in a mud house that could be from a few centuries ago, but has a solar panel running a fan. “Everything is harder because we are poor,” she told VICE World News as she rocked her malnourished six-month-old baby in a cloth hammock in the shade.
Khair Bibi’s family also knows that Jacobabad’s canal system that irrigates their rice fields and bathes their cattle has also polluted their ground water supply over time, so they venture out to buy filtered water from small-batch sellers for daily use.
That is just one of many health risks of living in this city.
“The more heat and humidity here, the more our bodies sweat and become vulnerable. If there is no humidity, we don’t realise we are sweating excessively, and we start to feel sick,” a 25-year-old rice factory worker named Ghulam Sarwar told VICE World News, as he was taking a five-minute break after carrying a 100 kilogram bag of rice with another worker. He works in brutal heat without a fan for 8-10 hours a day but he considers himself lucky because he works in the shade. “This rice bag here is 100 kilograms, that bag over there is 60 kilograms. There is shade here. There is no shade there. No one works in the sun out of pleasure, they do it out of desperation, to run their homes,” he said.
Children living near Khair Bibi’s rice farm can only play outside in the early morning before it’s boiling hot. They make play doh out of mud while their water buffalos cool down in a pond. A massive electricity tower looms behind them. Their city is connected to Pakistan’s power grid, but the country is in the middle of a power shortage, and the poorest cities, such as Jacobabad, get the least electricity.
The power cuts have a cascading impact in this city. Many in the city complained the constant power outages didn’t even allow for them to charge their battery-powered electricity sources or their mobile phones. This reporter’s iPhone overheated multiple times – with the city’s temperature consistently a few degrees more than Apple products can handle. Heat sickness is a lurking threat and without air conditioning, most plan their days around the power outages and having access to cool water and shade, especially during the most brutal heat hours between 11am and 4pm. The markets in Jacobabad are lined with ice blocks from ice factories and stores with battery-powered fans, cooling devices and single solar panels - which recent price hikes have made difficult to buy.
Nawab Khan, a solar panel seller in the market, has a sign behind him that translates to “you seem very nice, but being asked for a loan doesn’t feel nice.” He said the price of solar panels has tripled since he started selling them 8 years ago and many ask to pay in instalments which becomes difficult to manage.
And then there’s its impact on the water plants. The U.S. government spent $2 million to upgrade Jacobabad’s municipal water plant, but many locals say their lines are dry and authorities blame the power cuts. “The current population’s water demand is 8 million gallons a day. But we only manage to supply 3-4 million gallons from our water filtration plant because of the constant power interruptions,” Sagar Pahuja, a water and sanitation officer with Jacobabad city, told VICE World News. He added that if they ran the plant on power generators that use fuel, it would cost them $3,000 a day – money they don’t have.
Like the private water station owner claims, some locals VICE World News spoke to also complained that the water from the plant is not drinkable. A USAID report from last year also confirms complaints about the water. But Pahuja blames illegal connections with iron clamps that rust and contaminate the water supply.
There is currently another USAID water and sanitation project running in Jacobabad, that’s part of a larger $40 million programme in Sindh, the single largest U.S. investment in Pakistan’s health sector, but its impact is barely felt, given the extreme poverty pervading the city. American money has been visibly spent on a massive hospital that doesn't have an Emergency Room, which is what this city really needs with increasing heatwaves and people frequently dropping from heat stroke.
USAID in Pakistan did not respond to VICE World News’ repeated requests for comment. Their website says the money being funneled from the American people into Jacobabad is to improve the lives of its 300,000 citizens. But Jacobabad is also home to the Pakistan military’s Shahbaz Airbase, which is where American drones have flown from in the past and where U.S. aircrafts flew during Operation Enduring Freedom. Jacobabad has a 20-year-old history with U.S. marines, who never stepped foot off the airbase. U.S. troop presence in Pakistan has been a major source of contention over the years, although the Pakistani military denies their presence in Jacobabad.
Despite all the challenges of living here, Jacobabad’s population is increasing. The public schools and colleges have been a major attraction for years. The city is educating for jobs of the future even if most are scrambling to manage water and power needs and fighting heat exhaustion.
“We have a lot of crops here. I am studying insects that can survive in extreme heat and ones that attack rice crops. I want to study them to help farmers save their crops. I am hoping to discover a new species in my region,” Natasha Solangi, an entomologist who teaches Zoology at one the city’s oldest colleges and the only college for women in the district, told VICE World News. “We have over 1,500 students. If there is a power outage, we can’t run fans. It gets very hot. We don’t have solar panels or alternate power sources. Students are giving their exams right now in extreme heat.”
Jacobabad is poor, hot and neglected, but this city’s community comes together to help itself. The camaraderie is evident in the city’s roads which have free volunteer-run shaded areas with water coolers and glasses and in rice factories where workers take care of each other. “When a worker gets heat exhausted, he collapses, then we take him to the doctor. If the factory owner pays for it, great. But if he doesn’t, we pay for it from our pocket,” said Sarwar, the rice factory worker.
Jacobabad’s road-side markets sell ice blocks for 50 cents or 100 rupees for people to take home, and they sell salted fresh seasonal fruit juice to cool down and electrolyte up for 15 cents or 30 rupees.
But the efforts of the community will not be enough for the future, especially if the government remains uninvolved.
Within South Asia, Pakistan’s Indus Basin communities are particularly vulnerable, but they fall under four different provincial government jurisdictions and the federal government does not have an overarching “extreme heat policy,” nor does it plan on building one.
Sherry Rehman, Pakistan’s federal minister for climate change, told VICE World News that federal interference in provinces is not possible because they have no jurisdiction over them. All they can really do, she said, is issue “clear guidance SOPs for heat management” keeping the area’s vulnerability and water stress in mind.
But Jacobabad’s city’s administration or its provincial government is clearly not ready for a massive heatwave. The heatwave centre VICE World News visited had a dedicated doctor and nurse team, but only four beds.
Yet the locals here have too many battles to face in their present, to worry about their future.
“There is no support from the government but we support each other,” said Sarwar. “If no one asks about our health, that’s not a problem either. God gives the poor protection.”
Abbas Ali Naich contributed to reporting.