The city of Jacobabad, in Pakistan, reaches 51 degrees of temperature
A heavily pregnant Sonari toils under the scorching sun in fields dotted with bright yellow melons in Jacobabad, which last month became the hottest city on Earth.
Her neighbor Waderi, 17, who gave birth a few weeks ago, has returned to work in temperatures that can exceed 50 degrees Celsius, with her newborn lying on a blanket in the shade nearby so she can feed it when it is born.
“When the heat comes and we’re pregnant, we feel stressed,” said Sonari, who is in her 20s.
These women from southern Pakistan and millions like them around the world are on the brink of climate change.
Pregnant women exposed to heat for prolonged periods are at increased risk of complications, according to an analysis of 70 studies conducted since the mid-1990s on the subject.
For every degree Celsius of temperature rise, the number of stillbirths and premature births increases by about 5 percent, according to analysis by the Global Consortium on Climate and Health Education at Columbia University, which was conducted by several research institutions worldwide and published in the British Medical Journal in September 2020.
Cecilia Sorensen, director of the Global Consortium on Climate and Health Education at Columbia University, believes that the impact of global warming on women’s health was “very poorly documented”, in part because extreme heat tended to exacerbate other conditions.
“We’re not associating health impacts on women and a lot of times it’s because we’re not collecting data on it,” she said. “And often women living in poverty don’t seek health care.”
“Heat is very important for pregnant women.”
Women are especially vulnerable to rising temperatures in poor countries on the front lines of climate change because many have little choice but to work during their pregnancies and shortly after giving birth, according to interviews with more than a dozen women living in the Jacobabad area, as well as half a dozen development and human rights experts.
In addition to the risks, women in socially conservative Pakistan, and in many other places, they often cook family meals over hot stoves or open firesoften in cramped rooms without ventilation or cooling.
“If you’re indoors cooking by an open fire, you have that heat load on top of ambient heat that makes things that much more dangerous,” Sorensen added.
Extreme humid heat events
South Asia has seen unusually high temperatures in recent months. An extreme heat wave that hit Pakistan and India in April was 30 times more likely to occur due to climate change, according to scientists at World Weather Attribution, an international research collaboration. Global temperatures have risen about 1.2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.
As temperatures continue to rise, extreme heat waves are expected to increase.
Jacobabad’s approximately 200,000 residents are well aware of its reputation as one of the warmest cities in the world.
“If we go to hell, we take a blanket with us,” is a common joke told in the area.
Few places are more punishing. Last month, temperatures reached 51 degrees Celsius on May 14, which local weather officials said was highly unusual for that time of year. Tropical rains can also conspire with warm winds from the Arabian Sea to increase humidity later in the year.
The more humid it is, the more difficult it is for people to cool down by sweating. Such conditions are measured by “wet bulb temperatures”, taken by a thermometer wrapped in a damp cloth. Wet bulb temperatures of 35°C or higher are considered the limit for human survival.
Jacobabad has crossed that threshold at least twice since 2010, according to regional weather data. And, globally, these “extreme humid heat events” have more than doubled in frequency over the past four decades, according to a May 2020 study in the journal Science.
Sonari, who is in her 20s, and Waderi work alongside a dozen other women, several of them pregnant, in the melon fields about 10 km from central Jacobabad.
They start work every day at 6 am with a short break in the afternoon for housework and cooking before returning to the fields to work until sunset. They describe pain in the legs, episodes of fainting and discomfort during lactation.
“It seems that nobody sees them, nobody cares about them”, dHumanitarian worker Liza Khan said of the plight faced by many women in Jacobabad and the wider Sindh region, which straddles the Pakistan and India border.
Khan’s phone rings constantly as he drives to one of three heat stroke response centers he helped set up in recent weeks as part of his work with a nonprofit group called the Community Development Foundation.
With a degree in finance, Khan has lived in cooler cities in Pakistan, but returned to her hometown because she wanted to be a voice for women in the conservative area.
“Today I work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week,” the 22-year-old said, adding that her organization was discovering the impact of rising extreme heat.
the front of suffering
The harsh conditions faced by many women were tragically revealed on May 14, when daytime temperatures in Jacobabad reached 51°C, making it the hottest city in the world at the 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 suspected heat stroke.
District health officials have not commented to Reuters on Jacobabad’s record of heat-related deaths in recent years, or more specifically on Nazia’s case.
Her body was taken the next day to her ancestral village for burial and her children, the youngest one year old who was still nursing, regularly mourn for their mother, a relative said.
Widespread poverty and frequent power outages mean that many people cannot afford or use air conditioning or sometimes even a fan to cool down.
Possible strategies recommended by experts include providing clean-energy stoves to replace open-fire cooking, offering medical and social services for women during the early morning or evening hours when it’s colder, and replacing tin roofs with a cooler white material to reflect solar radiation away from the environment. home.
Climate Change Minister Sherry Rehman told Reuters that women would likely bear the brunt of rising temperatures as they continued to burn the country, adding that future climate change policies needed to address the specific needs of women.
“A megatrend like climate change… poses a major threat to the well-being of disempowered women in rural areas and urban slums,” she added. “Pakistani women, especially on the fringes, will be hit the hardest.”
Some in Jacobabad find it irritating that Pakistan is responsible for only a fraction of the greenhouse gases released in the industrial age and now warming the atmosphere.
“We are not contributing to the worsening, but we are on the front lines when it comes to suffering,” said Hafeez Siyal, deputy city commissioner.
No water, no power
In a suburb of the city, a donkey cart filled with blue plastic jerrycans pulls up near the entrance to maze-like lanes leading to a cluster of houses. The driver of the cart runs back and forth delivering 20-litre containers of water from one of a few dozen private pumps in the city.
Most Jacobabad residents rely on such water deliveries, which can cost between a fifth and an eighth of a family’s meager income. Still, it is often not enough and some families are forced to ration.
For young mother Razia, the sound of six-month-old Tamanna crying in the afternoon heat was enough to persuade her to pour some of her precious water over the baby. She then sat Tamanna in front of a fan, and the girl was visibly calmer, playing with her mother’s scarf.
Local officials said the water shortages were due in part to power outages, which means that the water cannot be filtered and piped throughout the city. There is also a severe water shortage in Sindh, with Climate Change Minister Rehman pointing to a shortfall of up to 60% of what is needed in the province’s key dams and canals.
Rubina, Razia’s neighbor, fried onions and okra over an open fire, explaining that he usually got seasick in the heat and tried to immerse himself in water every time he cooked to keep from passing out.
However, there was not always enough water to do so.
“Most of the time, it ends before it’s time to buy more and we have to wait,” Rubina said as she closely supervised her children and grandchildren as they shared a glass of water. “On hot days with no water, no electricity, we wake up and all we do is pray to God.”
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.