Blistering Pakistan heat wave leaves nearly 2,000 dead over last two weeks

AP, Bloomberg

A heat wave in Pakistan’s financial hub of Karachi and surrounding areas has killed about 2,000 people in the past two weeks, the most in recent memory.

Temperatures reaching 45 degrees Celsius (113 degrees Fahrenheit) have claimed about 1,500 lives in Karachi and 500 in other parts of southern Sindh province, according to Anwaar Kazmi, a spokesman for rescue agency Edhi Foundation. Most of the victims have been elderly, he said.

“There is no space left in the government hospitals to keep the dead bodies,” Kazmi, who runs the largest private ambulance service in Karachi, said by phone on Wednesday. He said the death toll was a record from a heat wave.

Temperatures reached 32 degrees Celsius in Karachi on Wednesday, which was declared a public holiday by the Sindh provincial government. The hot weather will last until the end of June, said Afzal Sumera, deputy director of Pakistan’s weather department in Islamabad.

Hours-long power outages, typical in Pakistan, left fans and air conditioners inoperable.

The heat wave compounded the struggles of ordinary Pakistanis as it struck amid the holy, fasting month of Ramadan, when observant Muslims abstain from food or water during daylight hours.

“Many people have been taken to private hospitals where they have died … we are collecting that data,” said Karachi health director Zafar Ejaz.

The power outages also affected the sporadic water supply in Karachi, where those who can afford it rely on tankers of water being delivered to their homes.

Mortuaries were running out of space, with local television stations showing bodies stacked inside of cold storage rooms of morgues.

Many arrive at the hospital already unconscious or staring out blankly. Some fainted in hospital doorways, while patients lay on public benches and crowded corridors in wheelchairs and stretchers. Panicked families fought with hospital staff to admit their loved ones.

“We’re dying and we’re being told to wait,” said Moazzam Ali, as two women comforted his badly dehydrated mother, who was waiting for medical care.

Provincial Chief Minister Qaim Ali Shah on Tuesday ordered schools and public offices closed until the heat wave ends. He blamed the Pakistani federal government for the deaths, saying authorities had not responded to his appeals to fix the power grid. But Abid Sher Ali, a junior minister for water and power for the federal government, blamed Karachi’s local government for the deaths, saying they were not able to manage their own affairs.

Meteorologist Abdur Rauf called the heat wave the worst in at least a decade to strike Pakistan. He said expected monsoon rains in the coming days likely will bring relief to the area.

But for the time being, Karachi is boiling. Angry mobs protesting the power outages and lack of water blockaded several roads, burning tires. Police official Aslam Khan said there was no violence, though he called it an “anarchy-like situation” in some neighborhoods.

Karachi’s residents tried to find running water to cool off at public taps or broken pipes. Some bathed with their clothes on, while others washed their hands, faces and heads. As power outages rolled across the city, women and children walked down roads looking for shelter after leaving their small, suffocatingly hot homes.

Amid the traffic jams, some Karachi residents complained they were unable to find transportation to take the coffins of their dead to the graveyards.

“There are no buses to take our dead,” said Munawwar Khan.

Other voiced shock at how bad the situation had become.

“It seems as if there’s no government,” said Karachi businessman Salamat Hussain.