Feature Stories from Pakistan

‘Silent Infernos’: Deadly heatwaves imperil lives of women in India and Pakistan

By Shakoor Rather and Izhar Ullah

When heatwaves overpower the cities, women are the ones most affected. Read our special cross border story covering impacts of heatwaves in India and Pakistan and how some people are solving the issue.

In the stifling heat of West Delhi’s Sawda, the one-room house where Zarina Begum lives with her family of eight, transforms into an “unbearable inferno,” she said.

As Begum’s husband and sons go out for work, she and her daughters are left behind to battle the merciless heatwave within the four walls of their tiny house, with nothing but a feeble fan.

Zarina Begum at her home.

“We have to cook and clean, and work at the same time to augment the family income,” said 46-years-old Begum.“Without access to AC or cooler, the risk of diseases is higher.”

Thousands of kilometres away in Pakistan’s Peshawar, Shabeena has endured similar hardships.

Living in a  two-room temporary mud house, she and her three children grappled with the absence of proper ventilation and endured power cuts on summer days that regularly soar past 50 degrees Celsius.

“During extreme heatwaves, the only respite from the scorching temperatures is to take multiple showers throughout the day,” lamented the 50-year-old widow, who works as a maid in the neighbouring colony.

Like many other women in the region, Shabeena does not venture outside much due to cultural expectations that women should stay at home.

As the summer season looms and temperatures rise, millions of people across India and Pakistan will face potentially deadly heat waves this year. Experts say that women are especially at risk, as they are often restricted to sweltering work routines or homes with little access to cooling technology.

Climate change has made record-breaking heatwaves in northwest India and Pakistan 100 times more likely, a World Meteorological Organization (WMO) study says. Findings by the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) show that the total duration of heatwaves has increased by about three days in the last 30 years and is expected to go up 12 to 18 days more by 2060.

When it comes to the impact of these heat waves, a study by the UK’s Cambridge University found that women are more at risk.

“Our research indicates that women in these areas are disproportionately affected due to spending approximately 54 per cent more time indoors compared to men. The lack of access to effective cooling solutions exacerbates the issue, leading to inadequate heat stress adaptation,” said Professor Ronita Bardhan of the University of Cambridge, UK, a co-author of the study.

Bardhan and her team have also found that urban poor women in India work 57.6 per cent more hours than men, mostly in unpaid labour in domestic settings.

“This puts them at risk of indoor overheating during extremely hot summers and lethal heat days, especially when they are performing household activities like cooking,” she said.

Although women like Shabeena may try to find relief in cold showers, Bardhan pointed out that with the climate crisis intensifying and water scarcity on the rise, the simple luxury of soaking or sponging with water has become increasingly scarce.

She also highlighted the role of gendered traditional clothing, which retains heat amid thick layers and folds, and other cultural traditions that put women at risk.

“In regions such as India and Pakistan, where cultural practices assign women the role of shock absorbers, there is a significant delay in seeking healthcare. This delay, coupled with the tendency to maladapt to heat, increases the health risks faced by women in these communities,” she said.

Environmental economist Muhammad Rafique, a professor at the Institute of Management Sciences (IMS) in Peshawar, Pakistan, concurred with Bardhan. He noted that extreme heatwaves have grave impacts on vulnerable people, especially women, children, and the elderly.

“In rural areas, fetching wood and water, and agricultural farming is mostly done by these groups, both in Pakistan and other developing countries,” said Rafique.

Rafique noted that the increasing prevalence of diseases like diabetes among the elderly women puts them at high heat risk.

“Unmanaged diabetic patients can become dehydrated faster than normal human beings. Hence they will need access to cooling more,” he added.

Helping people manage heatwaves

Mahila Housing Trust has implemented cost affective solutions to build heat resilience | Photo: Mahila Housing Trust

In response to the escalating heat crisis, organisations like the Mahila Housing Trust (MHT), a non-profit that helps economically disadvantaged women in Indian cities build heat resilience, have implemented sustainable cooling solutions, including white solar reflective paint for roofs and innovative roofing materials in many households across the country.

“The group provides a range of cooling solutions to marginalised households, including white paint, green roofs, Airlite — a translucent plastic sheet that lets in light and improves ventilation — and ModRoof, a modular roof made from cardboard and agricultural waste,” said Bhavna Maheriya, programme Coordinator at MHT.

“More recently, parametric insurance has emerged as a new solution to help protect women’s incomes and health. Under this initiative, women can receive payouts on days of extreme heat, so that they don’t have to work under dangerous conditions,” said Maheriya.

Begum says she has heard about the insulation schemes and insurance and in case she is able to avail them in the future, it will certainly help her lessen the impact of future heatwaves.

However, experts say long-term solutions require comprehensive policies that foster gender mainstreaming and prioritise community resilience.

Bardhan emphasised the need for gender-inclusive heat action plans and urban planning strategies that reduce built environment-led heat stress. Community-driven interventions, coupled with adaptive policies, also offer a pathway towards building resilience, she said.

“Policies that foster gender mainstreaming should be adopted. For example, heat adaptation interventions should also be coupled with livelihood generation. This will push women out of poverty, giving them the agency to access a wide range of coping mechanisms,” she explained.

Rafique highlighted nature-based solutions as one of the remedies to combat extreme climate events that will help both the genders. He emphasised measures such as tree plantations, construction using local materials, retrofitting buildings, wastewater recycling, rainwater harvesting, and groundwater recharge as suggested strategies.

Implementing heat action plans

In Ahmedabad in 2010, temperatures reached 47.8 degrees Celsius (118 degrees Fahrenheit) and heat-related hospital admissions of newborns increased by 43 per cent.

A 2014 study published in the journal PLOS ONE found that more women than men died during the heatwave, with 427 excess deaths compared to 373 men.

Three years later, in 2013, Ahmedabad became the first city in India to implement a Heat Action Plan (HAP), a guide for emergency responses to heat waves. As per a report, the city has subsequently reduced the number of heat-related deaths by more than 1,000 each year.

In Pakistan, the National Disaster Management Authority has formulated a policy to combat the extreme consequences of heatwaves.

The policy calls for giving advance notice to the public about potential heatwave days.

Setting up medical relief centers in heatwave-prone regions, and ensuring the presence of medical personnel for prompt assistance.

Bardhan said that heat adaptation policies should be multidimensional.

For instance, they could include initiatives such as providing access to shade for outdoor workers, alongside heat insurance to compensate for lost work-days due to extreme heat.

“These policies serve to alleviate the overall heat burden while also mitigating the disproportionate impacts experienced by different genders,” she added.

This story was part of a cross-border reporting workshop organised by the U.S.-based East-West Center

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