Heavily pregnant Sonari toils under the scorching sun in fields of 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, is back to work in temperatures above 50 degrees Celsius while her newborn lies on a blanket in the shade nearby so she can feed him when he cries.
“When the heat comes and we’re pregnant, we feel stressed,” said Sonari, who is in her 20s.
These women in southern Pakistan and millions like them around the world are on the brink of climate change.
Pregnant women who are exposed to heat for a long time are at higher risk of complications, an analysis of 70 studies conducted since the mid-1990s found.
According to the meta-analysis, conducted by several research institutions worldwide and published in the British Medical Journal in September 2020, the number of stillbirths and preterm births increases by about 5 percent for every 1 degree Celsius increase in temperature.
Cecilia Sorensen, director of the Global Consortium on Climate and Health Education at Columbia University, said the unfolding effects of global warming on women’s health were “majorly under-documented,” in part because extreme heat tended to exacerbate other conditions.
“We don’t associate health effects in women, and often it’s because we don’t collect data on them,” she said. “And often women in poverty do not seek medical care.”
“Heat is a super big deal for pregnant women.”
Women are particularly vulnerable to rising temperatures in poor countries on the front lines of climate change, as many have little choice but to process their pregnancies and shortly after childbirth, according to interviews with more than a dozen female residents in the Jacobabad region half a dozen development and human rights experts.
Adding to the risk is that in socially conservative Pakistan – and many other places – women typically prepare family meals over hot stoves or open fires, often in cramped spaces with no ventilation or refrigeration.
“If you’re cooking indoors next to a hot open fire, you have this heat load on top of the ambient heat, which makes it that much more dangerous,” Sorensen added.
EXTREME HUMIDITY EVENTS
South Asia has suffered from unusually hot temperatures in recent months. According to scientists from World Weather Attribution, an international research collaboration, the likelihood of an extreme heatwave that scorched Pakistan and India in April was 30 times more likely due to climate change. 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 hottest cities in the world.
“If we go to hell, we’ll take a blanket,” is a joke common in the area.
Few places are more punitive. Last month, temperatures hit 51 degrees Celsius (124 degrees Fahrenheit) on May 14, which local meteorologists said was highly unusual for this time of year. Tropical rains can also combine with warm Arabian Sea winds to increase humidity later in the year.
The wetter it is, the more difficult it is for people to cool down by sweating. Such conditions are measured by “wet bulb” temperatures, which are measured by a thermometer wrapped in a damp cloth. Wet-bulb temperatures of 35°C or more are considered the limit for human survival.
According to regional weather data, Jacobabad has exceeded this threshold at least twice since 2010. And globally, according to a May 2020 study in the journal Science, the frequency of such “extremely humid heat events” has more than doubled over the past four decades.
Sonari, who is in her 20s, and Waderi, along with about a dozen other women, some of whom are pregnant, work in the melon fields about 10km from central Jacobabad.
They start work at 6am each day, with a short break in the afternoon for housework and cooking before returning to the field to work until sunset. They describe leg pain, fainting spells and discomfort when breastfeeding.
“It feels like nobody sees them, nobody cares about them,” said aid worker Liza Khan more generally of the plight of many women in Jacobabad and the wider Sindh region, which stretches along the Pakistan-India border.
Khan’s phone keeps ringing as she drives to one of the three heatstroke emergency centers she’s helped set up over the past few weeks as part of her work with a nonprofit group called the Community Development Foundation.
With a finance degree, Khan has lived in cooler cities across Pakistan but returned to her hometown because she wanted to be a voice for women in the conservative sphere.
“Now I’m working 24/7,” the 22-year-old said, adding that her organization is noting that the effects of extreme heat are increasingly intertwined with other social and health issues facing women.
THE FRONTLINES OF SUFFERING
The harsh conditions faced by many women were tragically brought into focus on May 14 when daytime temperatures in Jacobabad reached 51C, 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 a fan in her kitchen, she collapsed and was taken to a nearby hospital, where she was pronounced dead of suspected heat stroke.
District health officials did not respond to requests for comment on Jacobabad’s record of heat-related deaths in recent years, or more specifically on Nazia’s case.
Her body was taken to her ancestors’ village the following day to be buried, and her children, the youngest a one-year-old who was still breastfeeding, cried regularly 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 off.
Possible strategies recommended by experts include providing clean energy stoves as a substitute for open fire cooking, providing medical and social services to women in the early morning or evening hours when it is cooler, and substituting of tin roofs with cooler white material to deflect the sun’s rays out of the house.
NO WATER, NO ELECTRICITY, WE PRAY
In a residential area, a donkey cart loaded with blue plastic canisters pulls up near the entrance to maze-like alleys leading to a cluster of houses. The truck’s driver drives back and forth, delivering 20-liter containers of water from one of a few dozen private pumps around the city.
Most Jacobabad residents depend on such water supplies, which can cost between one-fifth and one-eighth of the meager household income. Nevertheless, it is often not enough and some families have to ration.
For new mother Razia, her six-month-old Tamanna’s crying in the afternoon heat was enough to convince her to pour some of her precious water over the baby. She then sat Tamanna in front of a fan and the child was visibly calmer, playing with her mother’s scarf.
Local officials said the water shortages were partly due to power outages, meaning water cannot be filtered and piped throughout the city. There are also severe water shortages across Sindh, with Climate Change Minister Rehman reporting shortfalls of up to 60 per cent of what is needed in the province’s key dams and canals.
Rubina, Razia’s neighbor, fried onions and okra over an open fire and explained that she usually got dizzy in the heat and tried to dip herself in water every time she cooked to keep from fainting.
However, there was not always enough water for this.
“Most of the time it ends before it’s time to buy more and we have to wait,” Rubina said while closely monitoring her children and grandchildren, who shared a cup of water. “On hot days without water and electricity, we wake up and only pray to God.”
Reuters. photography by Akhtar Soomro.
https://www.independent.co.uk/climate-change/jacobabad-pakistan-climate-change-heat-b2107809.html In Jacobabad, the hottest city on earth, women are bearing the brunt of climate change