Survival in the age of heatwaves

A fire fanned by a strong wind devours vegetation near the village of Monze, in the Aude department, southern France on August 15, 2019. Authorities had warned of extremely dry conditions across much of southern France after weeks of drought and record high temperatures. ( AFP / RAYMOND ROIG)
Updated 16 August 2019

Survival in the age of heatwaves

  • Even if the world succeeds in cutting carbon emissions, much of South Asia and the Gulf could become unliveable due to heat and humidity 
  • High heat is driving desertification in the Middle East and causing increased dust storms. 

DUBAI: From blistering heatwaves to raging thunderstorms and floods, extreme weather conditions have grabbed global headlines throughout the summer in the northern hemisphere. During a particular week of Europe’s record-breaking heatwave, more than 400 extra deaths were reported in the Netherlands alone.

The series of disruptive events have prompted experts to sound a stern warning: Even if the world succeeds in cutting carbon emissions, large expanses of South Asia and the Gulf could become unliveable due to high temperatures and humidity. 

Against this backdrop, a study by experts at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has revealed that on the current climate course, the heat in parts of South Asia will test the limits of human survivability. The report specifically highlights the risks to the inhabitants of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, a region of deep poverty where one-fifth of the world’s people live. 

The research, which predicts heatwaves with weather conditions “intolerable to humans,” echoes separate MIT studies showing that unliveable “wet bulb temperatures” could also become a regular occurrence in the Gulf by the century’s end. Wet-bulb temperature recordings take into account humidity in addition to standard temperature, with a 35°C wet-bulb temperature considered as the limit of human survivability. Excessive humidity at that point prevents sweat from effectively cooling down the human body. People can survive in such heat, but only for a matter of hours. 

A previous MIT report had looked at projected heat waves in the Gulf. While the number of “extreme heat” days foreseen for the Gulf was worse than South Asia, the impact on the latter region — in particular, northern India, Bangladesh and southern Pakistan — could be vastly more severe given its expanse of agricultural land and population size. 

The big question is: Are the parts of the world likely to be worst affected by climate change, including the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, prepared to withstand such temperatures?

Karim Elgendy, founder and coordinator of Carboun, a non-profit volunteer-based advocacy project promoting sustainable cities in MENA, told Arab News that the MIT studies were “very alarming” and among the “most influential papers to come out on regional climate change in quite a long time.” 

The Gulf is expected to be deeply affected by climate change because of its high levels of sunshine and humidity in addition to its scant water reserves, Elgendy said. It means the region is likely to be one of those most at risk for the threshold for extreme heat on the wet-bulb global temperature index. In the coming decades, the region is predicted to see days when this extreme threshold will be crossed, Elgendy said. 

“No one is denying that this is potentially dangerous. We are not talking about these conditions being fatal for a short period of time, for example getting out of your home and into a car. But if you spend six hours in these temperatures — if you were a laborer working outside — then this is potentially fatal. 


  • Middle Eastern countries have recorded extremely high temperatures during the current summer. 
  • Germany recorded its highest ever temperature, 42.6°C, on July 25, exceeding the previous record by 2.3°C. 
  • This summer both India and Pakistan faced one of the hottest and longest heatwaves since the two countries began recording weather reports. 
  • Greenland lost 10 billion tons of ice to the ocean in 24 hours on July 31 amid Arctic heatwave.

“In many Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) cities, where the real-estate market is a major part of the economy, there are lots of people working outside who could be affected by this. 

“We are also talking about increased risk levels and increased dependence on air conditioning as a life-support system. If outdoor conditions can be fatal, can anyone risk having their vehicle break down on the road in these temperatures where you could potentially die? Is that really something you want to contemplate?” 

Tony Addison, chief economist and deputy director for the United Nations University World Institute for Development Economics Research (UNU-WIDER), said the MIT’s latest predictions “seem plausible” if nothing changes. 

“Today’s weather, including the rising temperature, reflects the impact of the stock of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases (GHGs) already in the atmosphere,” he said. “Even if the world stopped adding to the stock of GHG today, the impact on temperature and other weather conditions would continue into the far future. 

“The world is continuing to add to that stock, and there is a high risk that we will not contain GHG emissions within a range that avoids serious and continued warming.” 

A study by the World Bank recently identified climate “hotspots” — regions most vulnerable to climate change — in South Asia. 

“We looked at two scenarios: A ‘climate-sensitive’ scenario in which countries comply with the Paris Climate Agreement and a ‘carbon intensive’ scenario where the agreement breaks down and carbon emissions continue unabated,” said Muthukumara Mani, the World Bank’s lead economist for the South Asia region, referring to the 2016 pact which aims to limit global warming to less than 2°C and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C. 

The report predicted that annual average temperatures in South Asia will increase by 1.6°C before 2050 under the climate-sensitive scenario, and by 2.2°C under the carbon-intensive scenario. More than half the region will be a “hotspot” by 2050 under the carbon-intensive scenario, with 45 percent of the present popu-lation of South Asia — 800 million people — living in areas projected to become moderate or severe hotspots. 

According to Marine Pouget, a MENA policy advisor at Germanwatch, while Gulf countries can already deal with the heatwaves, the soaring temperatures seen across the globe will raise a significant issue in the coming decade — energy consumption. 

We must ensure that the MENA region is ready for climate change’s almost inevitable impacts.

Karim Elgendy, Founder of Carboun 

“Air conditioning will have to be able to work longer and under harder conditions. This will have an impact in the private sphere, but also on business and tourism. The energy bill for the Gulf countries may rise rapidly,” she told Arab News. 

Pouget said Gulf countries need to implement heatwave assistance programs that cater for the most vulnerable, such as children, isolated elderly citizens and those in ill-health during heatwaves. She pointed to France as a case study — and the measures it put in place following the infamous 2003 heatwave that caused thousands of deaths — including adopting strict guidelines and an alert system that has since won plaudits from the UN. 

Karim Elgendy

Elgendy said action is needed to make Gulf countries resilient in the face of rising temperatures and to mitigate “alarming long-term risks,” such as rising sea levels for the UAE, Qatar and Bahrain, and increased risks of storms for Oman. 

“Given the unique socio-economic and environmental conditions of the MENA region, we must consider sustainability together with climate resilience to ensure the region becomes ready for its almost inevitable impacts,” he told Arab News.

“The fact that the GCC region is still buildings its cities and infrastructure provides a good opportunity for positive policy.” 

Elgendy said the wider MENA region needs to address the impacts of climate change despite its limited historical responsibility for emissions, compared with the regions of Europe and North America, which have more “moral responsibility” for most of the carbon in our atmosphere today. 

The GCC started to take action when it announced its shift towards renewable energy, he said. Saudi Arabia, for example, has set for itself a renewable energy target of 27.3 gigawatts of renewable energy by 2024. Elgendy said the GCC countries can do more to strengthen their commitments to the Paris Climate Agreement.





Berlin celebrates postwar visitor program for expelled Jews

Updated 15 September 2019

Berlin celebrates postwar visitor program for expelled Jews

  • The program has brought people like Melmed on one-week trips to Berlin to reacquaint themselves with the city
  • The “invitation program for former refugees” has brought back primarily Jewish emigrants who fled the Nazis

BERLIN: Berlin was the last place Helga Melmed had expected to see again. She was 14 when the Nazis forced her and her family onto a train from their home in the German capital to the Jewish ghetto in Lodz, Poland, in 1941.

That started a gruesome odyssey that later saw her imprisoned at Auschwitz and Neuengamme outside Hamburg before she was finally freed by British soldiers in 1945 from Bergen-Belsen in northern Germany, a 46-pound walking skeleton.

For years, she never considered returning to Germany until she was invited on a trip by the city of her birth, in a reconciliation program meant to help mend ties with former Berliners who had been forced out by the Nazis.

Now celebrating its 50th anniversary, the program has successfully brought people like Melmed on one-week trips to Berlin to reacquaint themselves with the city.

Some 35,000 people have accepted the invitation since it was first issued in 1969, and while the numbers are dwindling a few new participants still come every year.

“I thought I’d never come back,” Melmed, 91, who emigrated to the US via Sweden after the war, told The Associated Press in an interview.

The “invitation program for former refugees” has brought back primarily Jewish emigrants who fled the Nazis, or those like Melmed who survived their machinery of genocide.

On Wednesday, she and other former program participants were invited to Berlin City Hall to celebrate the half-century anniversary.

At a ceremony mayor Michael Mueller thanked them for coming back — despite all they suffered at the hands of the Germans.
“Many people followed our invitation, people who had lost everything they loved,” he said. “I want to express my strong gratitude to you for putting your trust in us.”

Despite skepticism at the time that anyone persecuted by the Nazis would want to return, in 1970 — one year after the program’s launch — there was already a waiting list of 10,000 former Berliners who wanted to come back for a visit.

More than 100 other German cities and towns have instituted similar programs but no municipality has brought back as many former residents as the capital.

Berlin, of course, also had the biggest Jewish community before the Holocaust. In 1933, the year the Nazis came to power, around 160,500 Jews lived in Berlin. By the end of World War II in 1945 their numbers had diminished to about 7,000 — through emigration and extermination.

All in all, some six million European Jews were murdered in the Holocaust. Melmed’s father was shot dead in the Lodz ghetto — where the Nazis concentrated Jews and forced them to work in factories — a few months after their arrival and her mother died of exhaustion a few months later, shortly after Melmed’s 15th birthday.

Melmed, who lives in Venice, Florida, received her invitation under the reconciliation program 42 years ago. “One day, out of the blue, I found a letter in the mailbox inviting me to come back for a visit,” the retired nurse said at the hotel where she was staying with two of her four children and a grandson.

“So, in 1977, my husband and I traveled to Berlin.” They were part of an organized group tour of dozens of other former Berliners who had been persecuted by the Nazis.

“I don’t know if the trip was a dream or a nightmare,” Melmed said. One afternoon, she went for a coffee at Berlin’s famous Kempinski Hotel — today called the Bristol Hotel — just like she used to do as a little girl with her mother and dad, a banking executive.
“It was heart-breaking,” Melmed said.

Her life story is chronicled in the exhibition “Charter Flight into the Past” about the program, which opened Thursday at Berlin’s City Hall and will run through Oct. 9.

Johannes Tuchel, the director of the German Resistance Memorial Center, which curated the exhibition, said that many returnees had conflicting emotions.

They didn’t trust the Germans — especially in the early years of the program, when many people they saw in the streets still belonged to the Nazi generation. Often, memories of loss and pain were stirred up by the visit, but at the same time many were also able to reconnect with a city that harbored many happy childhood mementos for them.

For Melmed, closure came only at an old age. In 2018, when she turned 90, she decided to return once again to Berlin. It was then that she met the current tenants of her old family home in the Wilmersdorf neighborhood of Berlin.

They invited her back into the apartment and organized a plaque-laying ceremony last week to commemorate her parents on this year’s visit.

Last week, city officials presented her with her original birth certificate and her parents’ marriage certificate. “Now it’s all closure for me,” Melmed said with a peaceful smile as she touched her golden necklace with a Star of David pendant. “It doesn’t hurt anymore.”