Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Death toll thought to have exceeded 800 as heat wave hits Sindh Province, Pakistan.

The death toll from a heat wave hitting Sindh Province in Pakistan is thought to have exceeded 800. A total of 775 deaths had been reported in Karachi, the capital of the province, between Saturday 20 and Wednesday 24 June 2015, with the more deaths likely in rural areas, where temperatures have been higher and poor access to hospital facilities means that causes of death tend not to be recorded. A high temperature of 43°C was recorded in Karachi on 20 June, while temperatures on 23 June reached 41°C in Karachi, 45°C in Sukkur, 44°C in Jacobabad and 43°C in Larkana.

Medical workers at a Karachi hospital helping a heat stroke victim. Shakil Adil/AP.

The worst affected people have been day laborers forced to work in the open, and older people less able to cope with high temperatures. However the high temperatures have prompted a spike in electricity demand for air conditioning, which has overwhelmed Karachi's power distribution network, leading to a series of power blackouts which have placed even those typically working and living in air conditioned environments at risk. It is also currently the month of Ramadan, during which most Muslims fast and abstain from drinking water during the hours of daylight, increasing the risks of people suffering from dehydration. 

The bodies of heat wave victims in a morgue in Karachi. EPA.

Sidh Province typically suffers high temperatures in June, ahead of the arrival of the monsoon in July, however in coastal regions this is typically offset by a cooling sea-breeze. This has been notably absent around Karachi this year, trapping a pocket of hot, moisture-laden air around the city. 

The severity of the 2015 heat wave appears to be related to a strong El Niño affect recorded over the southern Pacific Ocean this year. The El Niño is the warm phase of a long-term climatic oscillation affecting the southern Pacific, which can influence the climate around the world. The onset of El Niño conditions is marked by a sharp rise in temperature and pressure over the southern Indian Ocean, which then moves eastward over the southern Pacific. This pulls rainfall with it, leading to higher rainfall over the Pacific and lower rainfall over South Asia. This reduced rainfall during the already hot and dry summer leads to soaring temperatures. Worryingly climatic predictions for the next century suggest that global warming could lead to more frequent and severe El Niño conditions, making such South Asian heat waves a common occurrence.

Emergency water distribution in Karachi. Rehan Khan/EPA.

Heat stroke typically occurs when the human body is heated to over 40°C; such temperatures the body rapidly becomes too dehydrated to allow further sweating and the body looses its ability to thermoregulate, leading to disorientation and occasionally seizures, followed by  unconsciousness and eventual death. The best way to avoid this is to remain indoors during the hottest parts of the day, and to cover up with loose-fitting lightweight clothing and a hat when forced to venture outside.

See also...

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Seven people, including at least one child are known to have died following a landslide which destroyed four houses at Laldan in the Budgam District of Jammu and Kashmir on Monday 30  March 2015. It is feared at...

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