Pakistan: In hottest city on Earth, mothers bear brunt of climate change

These women are at the searing edge of climate change



By Reuters

Published: Tue 14 Jun 2022, 3:34 PM

Heavily pregnant Sonari toils under the burning sun in fields dotted with bright yellow melons in Jacobabad, which last month became the hottest city on Earth.

“When the heat is coming and we’re pregnant, we feel stressed,” said Sonari, who is in her mid-20s.

These women in southern Pakistan and millions like them around the world are at the searing edge of climate change.

Pregnant women exposed to heat for prolonged periods of time have a higher risk of suffering complications, an analysis of 70 studies conducted since the mid-1990s on the issue found.

For every 1 degree Celsius in temperature rise, the number of stillbirths and premature deliveries increases by about 5 per cent, according to the meta-analysis Global Consortium on Climate and Health Education at Columbia University, which was carried out by several research institutions globally and published in the British Medical Journal in September 2020.

Women are especially vulnerable to rising temperatures in poor countries on the frontlines of climate change because many have little choice but to work through their pregnancies and soon after giving birth, according to interviews with more than a dozen female residents in the Jacobabad area as well as half a dozen development and human rights experts.

Further adding to the risks, women in socially conservative Pakistan - and many other places - typically cook the family meals over hot stoves or open fires, often in cramped rooms with no ventilation or cooling.

South Asia has suffered unseasonably hot temperatures in recent months. An extreme heatwave that scorched Pakistan and India in April was 30 times more likely to happen due to climate change, according to scientists at World Weather Attribution, an international research collaboration. Global temperatures have risen by about 1.2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

As temperatures continue rising, extreme heatwaves are only expected to increase.

Jacobabad’s roughly 200,000 residents are well aware of their reputation as one of the world’s hottest cities.

“If we go to hell, we’ll take a blanket,” is a common joke told in the area.

Few places are more punishing. Last month, temperatures hit 51 Celsius (124 Fahrenheit) on May 14, which local meteorological officials was highly unusual for that time of year. Tropical rains can also conspire with warm winds from the Arabian Sea to drive up humidity later in the year.

The more humid it is, the harder it is for people to cool down via sweating. Such conditions are measured by “wet bulb temperatures,” taken by a thermometer wrapped in a wet cloth. Wet bulb temperatures of 35ºC or higher are considered the limit to human survival.

Jacobabad has crossed that threshold at least twice since 2010, according to regional weather data. And, globally, such “extreme humid heat events” have more than doubled in frequency in the last four decades, according to a May 2020 study in the journal Science.

Sonari works alongside about a dozen other women, several of them pregnant, in the melon fields about 10 km from Jacobabad's centre.

They begin work each day at 6am with a short afternoon break for housework and cooking before returning to the field to work until sundown. They describe leg pains, fainting episodes and discomfort while breastfeeding.

The frontlines of suffering

The harsh conditions facing many women were brought into tragic focus on May 14, the day temperatures in Jacobabad hit 51ºC, making it the world’s hottest city at that time.

Nazia, a young mother of five, was preparing lunch for her visiting cousins. But with no air conditioning or fan in her kitchen, she collapsed and was taken to a nearby hospital, where she was pronounced dead from a suspected heat stroke.

District health officials did not answer requests for comment about Jacobabad’s record of heat-related deaths in recent years, or more specifically about Nazia’s case.

Her body was taken the following day to her ancestral village to be buried and her children, the youngest a one-year old who was still breastfeeding, regularly cry for their mother, a relative said.

Widespread poverty and frequent power cuts mean many people can’t afford or use air conditioning or at times even a fan to cool down.

Climate Change Minister Sherry Rehman told Reuters that women were likely bear the brunt of rising temperatures as they continued to scorch the country, adding that climate change policies in the future needed to address the specific needs of women.

"A megatrend like climate change ... poses a significant threat to the well-being of unempowered women in rural areas and urban slums," she added. "Pakistani women, especially on the margins, will be impacted the most."

Some in Jacobabad find it galling that Pakistan is responsible for just a fraction of the greenhouse gases released in the industrial era and now warming the atmosphere.

"We are not contributing to the worsening, but we are on the frontlines as far as suffering is concerned," said Hafeez Siyal, the city's deputy commissioner.


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