The view from Pakistan: Why our ancestors had it right all along

In his latest piece, Environment Journal correspondent Ian Packham shows us just how hot it can get in Pakistan, where summer heatwaves put lives at risk. 

‘Uh, that’s good’ I say to no one in particular as a breeze funnels down another of Hyderabad’s baked streets – streets combining a little of the traditional and some of the modern. You can buy solar panels and they’ll be delivered by donkey cart.

By now, I’m probably too dusty and dirty for polite company in any case. This part of Sindh province sees the fertile plains of Punjab give way to the Cholistan Desert. Deriving its name from the Turkic for ‘land of sands,’ the region regularly records some of the world’s highest temperatures.

It’s a city which only really comes to life at dusk, when the market stalls and tea houses are at their busiest. At other times of day, it’s just too hot to do anything more than seek out the nearest spot of shade. Schools call an end to lessons around midday. By 10 am, the thin red line in my thermometer is already reaching beyond 30°C.

This makes it nine degrees hotter than the UK’s summer average, and almost 20 degrees cooler than the region’s highest ever temperature. This stands at 49°C, and it’s a record that isn’t likely to stand for long. It was recorded in nearby Jacobabad in a heatwave which swept across Pakistan in mid-April.

Climatologists have determined that the heatwave was made 100 times more likely by the changing climate. Forty-nine degrees Celsius is a temperature at which road surfaces start to melt. It’s a heat which can kill a fit and healthy individual in a few hours.

Nearly the same number of people – 48 million in Sindh province – endure these temperatures. There’s no other word which adequately describes how difficult it is to even lie down in these temperatures.

So imagine if global temperatures were to rise further in line with 1.5°C – the best-case scenario. We will likely see a massive increase in deaths. We know that the heatwave in Europe this summer resulted in the excess deaths of 100,000 people. And we will see huge levels of migration which Pakistan and other parts of the world aren’t ready for, as millions seek out cooler climes.

Of course, Hyderabad has never had the temperate climate of somewhere like the UK. While today air conditioning is available for the better off, historically its inhabitants turned to the same wind which cooled me on my entry into the city.

Hyderabad was once dubbed manghanjoshaharuor, or ‘city of the wind catchers,’ after the chimney-like towers which used to sit on the top of its buildings to suck in the cool air. Although my early morning stroll suggests they’ve now been largely replaced by mobile phone masts, there are other elements of the passive architecture of the past which not only survives but are being actively investigated by architectures as an answer to the problem of 50°C temperatures everywhere from Zimbabwe to Australia and Dubai.

We may not favour the narrow streets that keep Hyderabad’s bazaar area shaded by physically preventing the sun reaching the ground. But other features, such as latticework screens, seen everywhere from domestic balconies to the Taj Mahal, are increasingly taking prominence in new building designs to aid cooling without being energy hungry.

It’s a tactic which needs to work. Sindh is populated by a historically nomadic people who settled down due to improvements in the climate. After 10,000 years, they may have to become nomads again, and the rest of the world may need to be ready for 48 million climate refugees.

Revisit Ian Packham’s previous dispatches from Pakistan: 
Karakorum – The climate change frontline

New lakes form another risk in Karakorum

Is sustainable development possible?

The environment in Pakistan’s cities

Green shoots in Pakistan’s climate adaptation and resilience

Encountering the deadly Indus floods head on

Photos provided by Ian Packham


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