A boy runs across a patch of parched riverbed of Yamuna, India's longest tributary river, which runs through India's capital New Delhi. Photo: Sajjad Hussain / AFP
Summer in the Pakistani city of Jacobabad brings its nearly 200,000 residents on a war footing every year. Amid unannounced bouts of power cuts, the temperature soars to 49 degrees Celsius or 120 degrees Fahrenheit. The city is the world’s hottest right now, and experts say the heat is testing human survival. Haji Mashooq Kharani, a labourer at a rice mill, is among the city’s hundreds of working class who work outdoors to sustain themselves. “This heat is completely unbearable but we are labourers and we have no choice,” Kharani told VICE World News. He works around 14–15 hours every day, lugging sacks as heavy as 100 kilogram. He struggles to find shade or cold water to drink.
“This tormenting heat is a curse for us,” he added. “Workers here faint regularly because of the heat and, in some cases, they die.” Over the last two months, heat waves across South Asia have been impacting roughly 99 million people, especially the region’s most vulnerable, triggering anxieties about the future. Experts say that the South Asian temperatures are exceeding “wet bulb temperatures,” in which the body stops sweating and starts heating up exponentially. This year, India touched its hottest March in 122 years, while the same month for Pakistan was the hottest in 60 years.
In the past, Pakistan’s annual heatwave had killed hundreds in Karachi, which is in the same province as Jacobabad. Colonel Ahmed Soomro, a resident of Jacobabad and the district head of the nonprofit Public Primary Healthcare Institute, told VICE World News that every summer, many people – especially the poor – fall sick and die from the heat. “[Right now], there are many heat strokes happening in the area.” In India, where temperatures reached 47 degrees Celsius or 116 degrees Fahrenheit, at least 25 people have died since March due to suspected heat-related illnesses. Similar data from Pakistan is currently unavailable. But as the human cost of the unprecedented heat waves unfolds, experts are linking the phenomenon to global warming.
Roxy Mathew Koll, a climate scientist at the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology, is among many experts who are calling attention to the devastating impacts of human-made carbon emissions on developing countries. Studies show how global south economies bear the disproportionate brunt of carbon emissions that come mostly from the world’s richest countries. And in these countries, the vulnerable populations face the worst. In India’s capital New Delhi, parts of India’s longest tributary river, Yamuna, dried up, revealing garbage and cracked surface early this week. People living along the banks told VICE World News that they’re worried about the coming days. “For the last two months, we’ve not had running water and electricity too. How do we cope with the heat?” one of them said on condition of anonymity for they fear reprisal from authorities. “We have to walk miles to fetch water for basic needs such as bathing and cooking.”At least 17,000 Indians have died because of extreme heat over the last 50 years. But news reports say that many other heat wave deaths are neglected and therefore are not recorded. Soomro in Pakistan’s Jacobabad agreed about the lack of heat-related surveillance. “Many of [heat-related] deaths are not registered. Cause of deaths are not properly attributed to heat stroke due to which the data is inaccurate,” said Soomro.
Together, India and Pakistan have a labour force of nearly 600 million, all of whom are in constant danger from the heat, which is then compounded by government negligence. Koll said the heat waves reduce performance at work and increase the risk of heat-related illness. “A decline of 30–40 percent in the work performance is projected over India by the end of the century due to the elevated heat stress levels,” he said.
Soomro said that many people aren’t aware of their basic rights when it comes to getting relief from the heat. “And if they do become cognizant of them, our government officials simply don’t have the capacity to address their needs because of politics, corruption, bribes and nepotism,” he said. Despite constant international attention on Jacobabad’s searing heat, a 2021 Amnesty report states that the Pakistani government’s environmental policies and reforestation projects failed to reach the city’s people.“The city’s inhabitants and their way of life is dominated by attempts to escape the heat,” the report said. “There has been significant deforestation in previous years. While official data is not available on Jacobabad specifically, the World Wide Fund for Nature estimates only 5.7 percent of Pakistan’s land to be under forest cover.”
Soomro said that as the population increases, the pressure on electricity is growing too, leading to loadshedding. India, too, reported nationwide power cuts during the heatwave.
The story of negligence and corruption is present in India too. The Indian government is known to approve projects that flout environmental laws, and it allows mining and development activities in crucial forested regions. “One of the impacts of that extreme heat is the demand for more electricity and fossil fuels [for air conditioning], leading to more emissions,” warned Koll. “This can be a vicious cycle as temperatures go further up.”In the meantime, South Asians like Kharani bear witness to this apocalyptic heat as he toils in temperatures reaching nearly 50 degrees Celsius. “Human beings cannot bear [this heat] but because of God’s will, we are obliged to live in these conditions,” he said. “We have to work despite it for our survival, to feed our kids.”Follow Rimal Farrukh and Pallavi Pundir on Twitter. Additional reporting from Delhi by Jaishree Kumar.