Karachi, the world’s second largest city by population, is emerging from the grips of a deadly heatwave. A persistent low pressure system camped over the Arabian Sea stifled ocean breezes and brought temperatures in excess of 113°F (45°C) to the city of 23 million people in June. The searing heat disrupted electricity and water service, making life nearly unbearable. All told, officials estimate the heatwave killed at least 1,200 Pakistanis, more than twice as many as have died in terrorist attacks this year.
But meteorology alone cannot explain this turn of events. Rather, as with all disasters, Karachi’s heatwave is rooted in a complex web of natural and man-made factors. “The emergency is the product of a perfect storm of meteorological, political, and religious factors,” notes The New York Times.
Karachi’s rapid growth has heightened people’s exposure and vulnerability to heat. Since 2000, Karachi’s population has doubled, making it the fastest growing megacity in the world. This population explosion has overwhelmed the capacity of local government. At least half of all Karachiites live in informal settlements, with little access to infrastructure and vital services. Unplanned expansion has also led to widespread environmental degradation. Karachi’s annual concentration of fine particulate matter is 11.7 times World Health Organization standards (and more than double that of Beijing), making it the fifth most air-polluted city in the world. Karachi also faces an acute water crisis. Some of its poorest residents survive on just 10 liters per day, one-fifth of daily drinking requirements, while some estimates suggest more than 30,000 people die from water-related diseases every year.
Wide swathes of trees and other vegetation have been cleared for roads and buildings, limiting shade and exacerbating the urban heat island effect (the process by which urbanized areas absorb and retain solar radiation, significantly increasing local temperatures). Add to this the city’s construction boom which creates a major demand for manual labor and the onset of the holy month of Ramadan – during which Muslims can neither eat nor drink before sundown – and you have a recipe for disaster.
A Shortage of Governance
Each of these factors is rooted in a larger issue: Pakistan’s utter lack of effective governance. The electricity sector provides an excellent microcosm of these challenges. K-Electric, the city’s electric utility company, has come under fire for its inability to provide enough energy to power air conditioners, fans, and water pumps during the heat wave. K-Electric has become such an easy target that the Islamist militants Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan threatened to take action against the company.
While part of K-Electric’s struggles stem from the increased demand in electricity brought about by the heatwave itself, the fact remains that the company, which was recently privatized, is woefully mismanaged. Distribution losses eat up nearly one-third of the country’s power, while poor cost recovery mechanisms have saddled utilities with high debt. As the Wilson Center’s Michael Kugelman argued recently, “Pakistan’s energy problems are rooted more in shortages of governance than of supply.”
Ineffective governance has also undermined the government’s disaster response. Survivors have slammed the government’s inability to warn residents about the heatwave or to disseminate information on how to cope with it. Critical social services were not up to task, as public hospitals struggled to handle the influx of patients and health officials failed to protect vulnerable populations, particularly the elderly and the homeless.
It is thus unsurprising that the government has faced scrutiny. This principle holds true in other countries as well. In a 2010 article, Andrew Healy and Neil Malhotra explored the connection between the incidence of tornadoes in the United States and how incumbent politicians fared in subsequent elections. “Citizens do not reflexively punish government for circumstances beyond its control,” they found. “Rather, the electorate’s response appears to depend on whether the incumbent robustly responded to the disaster.” When governments fail these tests of preparedness some scholars expect climate change will create political instability and even violent conflict.
For the full article, please see A New Climate For Peace.