The floods came, and then the sickness.
Muhammad Yaqoob stood on his concrete porch and watched the black, angry water swirl around the acacia trees and rush toward his village [Bagh Yusuf, in Sindh province, Pakistan] last September, the deluge making a sound that was like nothing he had ever heard. “It was like thousands of snakes sighing all at once,” he recalled.
At first, he thought villagers’ impromptu sandbags, made from rice and fertilizer sacks, had helped save their homes and escape Pakistan’s worst floods on record. But Yaqoob — whom villagers call a wadero, or chief — soon realized it was just the beginning of a health disaster. The temperatures rose to triple digits, as the water that would not recede festered in the sun.
An elderly woman died in a boat on the way to the hospital, overcome by heat and dehydration. Dark clouds of mosquitoes bit through even the toughest donkey’s hide, spreading malaria to Yaqoob and four dozen of his neighbors. People came down with itchy dermatitis from walking through the floodwaters. Farmers who could not plant in drenched fields began cutting back their simple meals of vegetables and rice from three a day to two. And then, for some, just one.
“I had no idea what miseries this flood would bring for us,” said Yaqoob, whose village is in Sindh, the hardest hit province in a disaster that left a third of the country underwater.
Pakistan is the epicenter of a new global wave of disease and death linked to climate change, according to a Washington Post analysis of climate data, leading scientific studies, interviews with experts and reporting from some of the places bearing the brunt of Earth’s heating. This examination of climate-fueled illnesses — tied to hotter temperatures, and swifter passage of pathogens and toxins — shows how countries across the globe are ill-prepared for the insidious, intensifying risks to almost every facet of human health.
To document one of the most widespread threats — extreme heat — The Post and CarbonPlan, a nonprofit that develops publicly available climate data, used new models and massive data sets to produce the most up-to-date predictions of how often people in nearly 15,500 cities would face such intense heat that they could quickly become ill — in the near-term and over the coming decades. The analysis is based on a measure called wet-bulb globe temperature (WBGT), which takes into account air temperature, humidity, radiation and wind speed, and is increasingly used by scientists to determine how heat stresses the human body.
The Post analysis showed that by 2030, 500 million people around the world, particularly in places such as South Asia and the Middle East, would be exposed to such extreme heat for at least a month — even if they can get out of the sun. The largest population — 270 million — was in India, followed by nearly 190 million in Pakistan, 34 million across the Arabian Peninsula and more than 1 million apiece in Mexico and Sudan.
The results show how the risk has been growing and will escalate into the future. The number of people exposed to a month of highly dangerous heat, even in the shade, will be four times higher in 2030 than at the turn of the millennium.
By 2050, the number of people suffering from a month of inescapable heat could further grow to a staggering 1.3 billion. At this point, vast swaths of the Indian subcontinent will swelter under extreme humid heat, as will parts of Bangladesh and Vietnam. Only those who can find cooling will find respite. [Continue reading…]