Kuwait City, Karachi and the Iranian city of Ahvaz all experience some of the highest temperatures in the world. Such extreme heat, combined with poor air quality and planning, can have grave effects, especially for their poorest residents
On Thursday afternoon, the temperature in Kuwait City hit 50C. That’s very hot, but not any kind of record – the record for the city, set last summer, is over 55C. Between June and August, the average daily high is about 44C. During these searing-hot summer months, most Kuwaitis take refuge from the heat in air-conditioned offices and houses, leaving them only to drive to air-conditioned shopping malls in air-conditioned cars. In a city virtually devoid of shaded outdoor spaces, the mall is the only public space people go to walk around.
Sharifa Alshalfan, an architect based in Kuwait City, explains that Kuwaitis spend all of their time indoors. “It’s almost as if the outdoors doesn’t exist,” she says. “That’s the mindset of people here.”
It’s true that Kuwait City is one of the hottest cities in the world. On average, summer is hotter than in desert city Timbuktu, which sits on the edge of the Sahara. But it’s also wealthy – modern Kuwait City is built on oil money – which is why most Kuwaitis don’t really experience the heat; they can afford to avoid it. It’s generally only those on lower incomes, many of them immigrants from southeast Asia, that Alshalfan will see shading themselves under umbrellas on the street or riding public buses.
While Kuwaitis may be convinced that they’re living in the hottest city on the planet, there is at least one place that may be able to top it – if not for highest-ever temperature, then certainly for the impact of heat on its population. Iran’s Ahvaz, in the oil-rich province of Khuzestan, sometimes exceeds 50C in July. Yet it’s not so much the heat as the pollution that makes life unbearable for Ahvaz’s 1.5 million residents.
The city previously ranked number one in the air-quality survey by the World Health Organization (WHO) – number one being the worst. Factory emissions, traffic fumes and dust storms combine to create an atmosphere that’s visibly stifling: during the day the air can appear almost sepia. It’s not until after dark that the city, under the glow of neon lights and suffused with the scents of street food, comes to life.
Heat, though, does exacerbate problems with air quality. According to the World Bank, it is already difficult to breathe in some of the Middle East’s largest cities and a recent report, titled Turn Down the Heat, hints that the situation will only get worse under climate change – although better projections are needed. The data doesn’t tell us exactly what impact the heady mix of extreme heat and air pollution has on the people of Ahvaz, or other cities in middle- and low-income countries, but we do know it’s likely to be worse for those who are too poor to get out.
Looking beyond temperature charts, there is a whole host of cities where extreme heat takes a greater toll on the population and where it’s only getting hotter. A heatwave in Karachi, last month, reportedly killed 780 people, and Delhi saw a sharp hike in hospital admissions for heatstroke when the temperature rose above 45C in May. Perhaps one of the reasons that so many were affected is simply that a huge number were exposed to the stifling conditions. Karachi, home to an estimated 24 million people in 2013, is so densely populated that the average household size is now seven, compared with just two in London.
The true impact of extreme heat on cities in India and Pakistan may be almost impossible to calculate, suggests Arpana Verma, an urban health expert at the University of Manchester. “Here [in the UK], we’re actually able to monitor deaths and record temperature adequately, but in some of the lower- and middle-income countries, that data’s not available,” she says. “With the softer outcomes, it becomes even worse. Mortality is relatively easy to get data on, but when you start drilling down into other health outcomes, such as heatstroke, that are either reliant on adequate hospital data or GP data, then it’s even more unreliable.”
While the official figures may be underestimates, they are expected to rise under the influence of climate change. One 2015 study predicts that urban India will see at least a doubling of heat-related deaths before the end of the century, based on summer temperature increases of up to 3C. Another study found that deaths in Seoul increased by around 8% on heatwave days, with older people and those with no education at greater risk. Similar patterns have been seen in Sao Paulo, where 2014 brought some of the hottest, driest weather on record for the city.
Verma, who also acts an expert for the WHO Healthy Cities project, says some of the disparity is due to the socially disadvantaged being stuck in city-centre heat. “People of a higher economic status will actually move out of the city when they go to bed at night,” she says. Meanwhile, those on lower incomes often live and work in the hottest and most-polluted parts of the city. Verma thinks that improving urban planning will be fundamental to protecting society’s most vulnerable.
Even in rich cities, poor planning can exacerbate the effects of heat. In Kuwait City, the predominance of concrete and asphalt means that temperatures really ramp up in the afternoon as the hard surfaces start to radiate back the heat they’ve been absorbing all morning. As Alshafan’s own research for the London School of Economics highlights, the plans for modern Kuwait City were drawn up in the 1950s by foreign firms with little local expertise or respect for the climate.
A more compact design could have provided more shade from buildings, but the city remains much as it was half a century ago: sprawling and lacking in cooling vegetation. Even worse, it forces the locals to use their cars to run even the most minor of errands. “The city is designed so that we rely almost completely on the car,” says Alshalfan. “In London, I’d walk 10 minutes to the tube station and there was a convenience store next to it, while here I would do the same activities but I would have to take my car, because the neighbourhoods are divided up by highways.” The implications for the city’s carbon emissions, and the wider climate, don’t need elaborating.
Contrast to the situation in Melbourne, where they’re not just planting trees but what they call an “urban forest” to deal with increasing temperatures. Chair of the city’s environment portfolio, Arron Wood, explains: “We’ve got a target to double the forest canopy cover from around 22% to around 40% over the next 20 years and we know through research that that will actually cool the city by four degrees.”
The city recently brought together local governments from all over Australia and New Zealand to share the findings of its urban forestry strategy and, as one of the Rockefeller Foundation’s network of 100 Resilient Cities, Melbourne is developing connections with other cities on a global level. Wood says sharing information between cities may be key to dealing with extreme temperatures.
The average daily high for Melbourne in January is 26C. Last year, the city registered four days in a row over 40C. More generally, retail slumps and increases in crime levels and assaults related to extreme heat have been recorded, as well as spikes in hospital admissions and heat-related mortality. Back in 2009, there were 374 heat-related deaths in the five-day heat wave leading up to the “Black Saturday” bushfires. As in other countries, socially disadvantaged groups are hit hardest. When temperatures soar, the authorities now open up the city’s swimming pools and other cool areas to the homeless free of charge.
All this for a city that isn’t, by global standards – or even Australian standards – that hot. On the other hand, Melbourne provides a perfect demonstration of what scientists refer to as the “urban heat island effect”, in that its built-up centre is at the best of times around 4-7C hotter than surrounding green suburbs. Much of the research on extreme heat in the city environment cites this phenomenon. However, it is not necessarily as straightforward as it seems. A 2014 study of 65 North American cities published in Nature found that much depends on the background climate. While in wetter climates, the “rougher”, vegetated surfaces of nearby rural areas tend to be better at dissipating heat, in drier climates, the smoother, artificial surfaces of cities lose heat more efficiently. What this means is that some city centres in very dry regions may be no hotter – or even slightly cooler – than the surrounding rural areas.
Could this explain the lack of an obvious urban heat island effect for Kuwait City? Whilst the Nature study only considers US cities, lead author Lei Zhao says he expects the same may be true of cities in other parts of the world. Not that it will be of any comfort to Kuwaitis to hear that their city is a similar temperature to its already sweltering surroundings.
The fierce heat is so engrained in the city’s consciousness that, even in the cooler months of the year, most locals shy away from spending time outdoors. As an architect, Alshalfan comes across this often in requests from her clients. “The requests we get are very much indoor-centric, so if we were to suggest a courtyard or a garden space, they’ll be like, ‘No, no, no, that’s just going to be collecting dust and that’s going to be a waste of our land, so let’s close it up.’ So it has become a culture thing, which is unfortunate.”
In a warming world, it doesn’t look like Kuwaitis will be spending any more time outdoors. If we can limit the global temperature rise to 2C, the number of extremely hot days in parts of the Middle East and North Africa may level off in the next 40 years, according to the Turn Down the Heat report. However, under a 4C rise, they’ll keep on becoming more frequent until the end of the century, with some capital cities in the region predicted to frazzle for more than 115 days every year.
Source - The Guardian