A cruel summer

KARACHI, Pakistan: Heatwaves have become common this time of year in Karachi, Pakistan’s sprawling seaside port city. Still, the latest one caught its 20 million residents off guard.

It was all anyone here could talk about last week as people moved lethargically about their days, helpless to avoid temperatures that sometimes soared to 43.3 degree Celsius, leaving people in a fever-like haze, even in the shade.

The heat, radiating from roads and cement buildings well into the night, was made worse by the city’s notorious lack of green space. Shops and households that can afford air-conditioners cranked them up, but most people were left with few options: wet washcloths and electric fans, and those only for the few hours when the power was on.

The streets, normally congested with traffic, became eerily empty around noon. The traffic police listlessly motioned at cars from under umbrellas as people made their way indoors or hid for a few moments in the shadow of one of the city’s many concrete towers — anywhere that could provide some respite.

The heat spiked on May 18, a day after the beginning of Ramadan. The timing exacerbated the effects of the brutal temperatures.

The death toll has reached 65, according to Faisal Edhi, the head of the Edhi Foundation, a charity that operates Karachi’s biggest fleet of ambulances and its central morgue. Government officials dispute that figure.

After four days, the extreme heat subsided — to a relatively cooling average of 32.8C. But it’s expected to be over 43C again.

One of those who lost their lives was 30-year-old Tayyiba Feroz. When she went to cook food for her family on the evening of May 20, she was struggling with the heat but still felt fine, said her husband, Shaikh Mohammad Shiraz. She wasn’t fasting because she was pregnant, and pregnant women are exempt from the religious obligation. The power goes out about six hours a day in their neighbourhood, in one of the city’s more crowded northern slums, so residents plan their days around the times it comes on. Her husband said she had insisted on cooking dinner that night, worried that she wouldn’t be able to feed the family when the power would inevitably fail again.

He said she had been laughing with their three-year-old son before heading to the stove to prepare dinner. Minutes later, she collapsed and died.

Shiraz, arranging traditional Quranic recitations a week later, seemed unable to process her sudden demise.

He suspects that the heat from the stove compounded her dehydration.

And he is wracked with guilt because, he said, he knows well the signs of heat stroke from his job as an ambulance driver for the Edhi Foundation.

Shiraz, holding his son in his lap, said that in the past three years he had seen at least two dozen people die of heat stroke, most of them in June 2015, when Karachi suffered through one of the deadliest heatwaves in history. More than 1,000 people died in two weeks then, overwhelming hospitals and emergency responders.

“I saw men fall dead in the street,” he said. “We’d have people die in the back of our ambulances. It was non-stop.”

Edhi, whose family began the Edhi Foundation, said he believed the true number of casualties was underreported in 2015 and continues to be underreported.

Dr Seemin Jamali, executive director of the Jinnah Postgraduate Medical Centre, one of the biggest hospitals in Karachi, said the city had learnt from the experiences of 2015. “We’re absolutely more in control of the situation,” she said.

Heatwaves have been more frequent in Karachi since that time, but the recent one is the worst since then.