June 1, 2018 / 2:43 PM / 23 days ago

Pakistan's 'shocking' spring heat drives up water use, health risks

ISLAMABAD (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Nawabshah, a city in Pakistan’s southern Sindh province, made headlines last month when it hit what may be a new record world temperature for April: 50.2 degrees (122 degrees Fahrenheit), according to the World Meteorological Organization.

A commuter clips in his helmet over a wet towel to cool off from the heatwave along a road in Karachi, Pakistan May 29, 2018. REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro

But that blisteringly hot day was just the latest of many for Pakistan this year, as it faces fast-rising spring temperatures, with 45-degree Celsius days coming as early as March, weather officials say.

In March, all 34 meteorological stations across the country showed temperatures more than 10 degrees Celsius above the monthly average between 1981 and 2010, said Ghulam Rasul, director-general of the Pakistan Meteorological Department.

“This is really shocking for us to see March becoming warmer every year. Temperatures we used to record in the peak summer months (of June and July) about eight years ago are being recorded now in March,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

As climate change takes hold in Pakistan, it is bringing worryingly rapid temperature increases that threaten lives and harvests and are driving up water and power use as families struggle to stay cool.

Authorities in some parts of heat-baked Sindh province have banned outdoor work in the hottest part of the day to save lives if temperatures push past 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit).

In parts of Pakistan, summer crops also have dried before ripening as extreme heat evaporates the water from irrigation channels, farmers said.

“March and April used to be cool to mild months”, which helped the soil hold on to moisture, said Khalid Ahmed Kazi, an agro-meteorologist at the Pakistan Meteorological Department’s station in Tando Jam, in southern Sindh province.

Laborers cool off, as they receive mist from a water fountain along a road during hot and humid weather in Karachi, Pakistan May 31, 2018. REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro

But today, as temperatures get warmer and spring weather drier, “soil moisture is around 80 percent less compared to some eight to 10 years ago,” he said.

That is raising demand for irrigation water from rivers or wells, putting additional pressure on Pakistan’s already fast-declining groundwater stores and river flows, he said.

Weather forecasters say hot conditions are likely to continue through June and July in southern and central Pakistan, with southern cities like Karachi “most likely to grapple with more sizzling heatwaves,” Rasul said.

Karachi authorities are working to avoid a repeat of the nearly 2,000 heatwave-related deaths in the city in June 2015, using early warning systems put in place after the disaster, said Abdul Rashid, director of climatology at the Pakistan Meteorological Department’s Karachi office.

With monitors installed across the city in 2016, authorities can now forecast heatwaves about three days in advance and issue alerts, he said.

So far three heat alerts have been issued for Karachi this year, he said.

An elderly man cools off from a heatwave, as he takes a bath in front of closed shops in Peshawar, Pakistan May 31, 2018. REUTERS/Fayaz Aziz

Overall, average annual temperatures in Pakistan have risen by about half a degree Celsius over the last half-century, which has led to a fivefold rise in heatwave days since 1987, according to a 2017 report by the Asian Development Bank.

Reporting by Saleem Shaikh and Sughra Tunio ; editing by Laurie Goering : Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women's rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit news.trust.org/climate

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