It was reported that about 60 people died in the Karachi heat wave of 2018. A few years earlier, in 2015, temperatures up to 49°C led to the deaths of about 1,200 people from dehydration and heat stroke.
The conjecture on the causes of death is not limited to rising temperatures. In 2015 and 2018, May and June were supposed to be the hottest months before the monsoon but they were also the months when people were fasting. The authorities were caught off guard.
In 2015 a considerable number of the victims was the elderly and a majority of the deaths were reported of working class people. Academics and public health professionals have yet to analyse the 2018 deaths.
The weather records of Karachi from 1931 to 2015 show that temperatures above 40 degrees is not rare. It has happened at least seven times in the last 94 years.
So what is new to the heat wave that caused the deaths in 2015 and 2018?
Urban or city planners believe the heat waves had simple and clear causes. They hold responsible the planning and implementation of the built environment of Karachi for the creation of heat islands.
Heat islands are surfaces that were once permeable and moist but became impermeable and dry. These changes cause urban areas or cities to become warmer than their rural surroundings or suburbs. This creates an “island” of higher temperatures in the landscape.
In a recent discussion held at the Urban Resource Centre in Karachi, experts also mentioned that caution usually is exercised while planning coastal cities so not to block the wind corridors with high-rises and skyscrapers. Unfortunately Karachi is an exception to that norm.
Over 100 high-rises are currently being built and this will raise the altitude ranking of Karachi to unprecedented heights (Read 100 High-Rise Buildings Under-Construction, Karachi To Become ‘City In The Clouds’). Disrespecting building by-laws results in house and street heat-ups.
It certainly does not help that Karachi’s green spaces have also been shrinking. They provide some relief from the heat. Half of the 64 acres of Kidney Hill park has been lost to land grabbers. Out of of Gutter Baghicha’s 1,017 acres only 480 are left. And only five acres are left out of the 16.2 acres of Jheel Park in Blocks 6 and 2 of PECHS due to encroachments. Similarly, Jahangir Park, that was donated by Khan Bahadur Behramji Jehangirji Raj Kot Wale in 1883, used to cover an expanse of almost six acres. But this has been cut by one-third. (The Largest Safari in South-East Asia (265 Acres))
The present day Stoics also figure that consumerism is also to blame. To bring their point home, they cite an increase in the sales of cars and air conditioners as factors responsible for environmental degradation and the rise in temperatures. According to one of the experts, last year, Karachi recorded a 17% increase in the sales of ACs and is expected to see 5% more.
The rural areas of Karachi have also been facing a serious onslaught from commercial interests. According to experts, Gadap and Malir Towns, which were once home to orchards and farms, have been at risk since the 1980s. Sand mining from the Malir River for construction has reduced its catchment capacity. As a result wells have dried up and in turn the surrounding fields. Karachi’s agricultural land has shrunk as its built-up land has expanded.
Architects and planners have a range of technical solutions to offer both at the individual level and at the institution level. Before any solution needs to be taken forward, one question needs to be answered. If the heat wave is an outcome of a sustained conflict between the built environment and natural environment and if the planning of the City is dictated by commercial interests, coming from a powerful elite, then how will the proponents of ecology and environment get enough space to rehabilitate lost natural assets?
The proponents of deep ecology (a thread of philosophical propositions on environmental issues) suggest that a good environmentalist, by default, is anti-establishment, as commercial establishments and governmental set-ups, across the globe are responsible for the environmental woes of the planet. Is Karachi’s recurring heat wave irrefutable evidence of their argument?
The writer is a freelance researcher with a special interest in demographic and societal changes in Pakistan. He can be reached at mansooraza [at] gmail.com