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A portrait of a Karachi slum during a heatwave

Jun 02, 2018

As Pakistani NGOs and the government dispute how many have died in Karachi’s latest heatwave, the people who live in the city’s slums – those most vulnerable – are still ignored

Samooda, who goes by one name, is a Bengali speaking widow and mother of nine. She has bitter memories of the deadly 2015 Karachi heatwave that killed her two children, nine-year old daughter Noor and 16-year son Rasheed. She works as a daily wage labourer at the crab factory in her neighbourhood.

She now lives in a small makeshift hut made of wooden logs, palm leaves, cloth sheets and gunny bags, with the flag of Pakistan on top. She built the hut after moving from a one room house nearby.

She recalled the 2015 heatwave, one of the deadliest in the history of Pakistan. Over 1,200 people died and more than 40,000 suffered from heatstroke and heat fatigue. “We used to live in that house at that time,” she pointed to a small house with an iron sheet roof. Stones were placed on the sheet so that strong winds would not blow it away. “I still remember, it was Friday when all of a sudden our small home became so hot that it felt like a furnace.”

Both her children, Noor and Rasheed, were feeling weak. They were vomiting and complaining of headaches. She took them to a small private clinic in the neighbourhood, where the doctor said they were suffering from heatstroke and gave them some medicines. He also put them on intravenous drips. But it was too little, too late. Noor died that night, and Rasheed the next morning.

“It was a small house and with little space. I used to cook under the same roof with an iron sheet. When I started cooking, my children always went out as they could not sit inside the house,” Samooda said. She spent 17 years in that house.

In 2016 she decided to move. She sold her only goat and bought some land reclaimed from the sea. This is done by cutting down mangroves and dumping building debris over the area cleared, to push out sea water.

While it is a little cooler in her new home, it’s not much of an improvement. The new house is located next to mangroves that stop the breeze, and the standing sea water – often mixed with sewage – “almost boils” around the hut. At such times she closes all the openings in the hut with cloth, and she and her children use hand fans to cool themselves.

“During sizzling summer days, I don’t allow my young children to go out to play with other children, I force them to stay at home and I give them jaggery drink (water mixed with jaggery), as it has a soothing effect against heat,” Samooda said proudly. And if there is some extra money, she adds some ice in the jaggery drink.

She lives in one of the Karachi’s biggest slums, the Machar Colony, which literally means “Mosquito Colony’. Adjacent to Karachi Port, Machar Colony is spread over miles, with a population of approximately 700,000 people. They represent multiple ethnicities – Bengali, Burmese, Afghan, Pashtun, Mohajir, Sindhi, Kachhi – all united by poverty. Much of the land of the colony was created by reclaiming it from the sea by dumping garbage, debris and stones. The surface of the colony is not flat. Built with debris, the zigzag streets are bumpy, and there are heaps of garbage burning everywhere. Officially the colony is considered an ‘illegal slum’. Therefore, the authorities do not provide drinking water, sanitation, electricity or anything else. Women and children suffer the most.

Some of the residents have managed to get electricity, but Samooda is not one of them. Despite the heat, there is not even the prospect of an electric fan to provide relief.

Anyway, it is not electricity, but water that is the most precious commodity.

“Six litres of water cost me PKR 30 (USD 0.26) and I need at least 30 litres for drinking, cooking and bathing needs of my family. After working for 12 hours a day I hardly earn PKR 300 (USD 2.60),” said Samooda. Almost half of her income is spent on buying water for her family every day. Sometimes, when she has some extra money, she gives it to her younger daughter to buy some ice from the shop, so that she may give her children some cold water to beat the heat.

On May 18, 2018, the Pakistan Meteorological Department (PMD) issued an advisory saying that Karachi would be hit by a heatwave from May 19 for the next few days and no sea breeze was expected.

When she heard from a coworker at the crab factory about the heatwave forecast, Samooda took time off and stayed at home to look after her children. “After the death of my two children, I came to know that there had been a heatwave forecast by the government then. So I panicked after hearing the news this year, as I was afraid that if the city experienced a similar heatwave, any of my children may die.”

While none of Samooda’s children died this time, some of her neighbours were not so lucky. On May 20, the head of the Edhi Foundation, Faisal Edhi, said that his charity received 64 dead bodies of people who died due to heatstroke. Over the next two days this number had climbed to 120. However, government authorities rejected such claims and said “not a single person died to heatstroke in Karachi”.

Far from these bickerings, Samooda knows she has to live with the heat, and to take care. One of the ways that she has done so is by rejecting the burqa, or black cloth full body veil. The burqa is culturally important in the Bengali speaking community that she is a part of. But Samooda said that during summer a few years ago when she was taking a long walk she fainted in the street. Since then she has stopped wearing the burqa.

Traditionally women have to wear the long black burqa in some communities, but it can be stiflingly hot.

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