The MENA region, already acknowledged as the world’s most water-stressed area, has been grappling with escalating temperatures in recent years and is poised to encounter significantly higher temperature increases by the end of this century. According to a study published in The Lancet Planetary Health in April 2023, it is anticipated that the number of heat-related fatalities will surge by 123 individuals per 100,000, roughly 60 times more than the current figures.
Under conditions of sustained high global greenhouse gas emissions, daily maximum air temperatures in the MENA region may approach nearly 50°C by the century’s end. Nevertheless, if global warming is limited to 2°C, it’s possible to prevent as much as 80% of these projected fatalities.
Heatwaves can have adverse consequences for both individuals and society as a whole. Most notably, heatwaves can impact human health, leading to a range of highly discomforting conditions like heat exhaustion, heatstroke, dehydration, or fainting. Individuals within vulnerable demographics, including infants, the elderly, those with limited financial resources, individuals with disabilities, and those with pre-existing health conditions, are at heightened risk of suffering from heat-related illnesses and fatalities.
Accelerated by climate change
Furthermore, extended exposure to extreme heat can worsen mental health concerns, leading to symptoms like fatigue, sleep disturbances, cognitive fog, and irritability.
Workers engaged in outdoor occupations, such as delivery personnel, construction workers, farmers, and fishermen, are particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of extreme heat, ultimately diminishing overall labour efficiency. Additionally, periods of high temperatures can place stress on health care facilities as they experience a surge in patients with heat-related illnesses.
On a broader scale, heatwaves can inflict harm on local ecosystems, manifesting as diminished crop yields, water scarcities, and wildfires. These variables can have a profound impact on the welfare of communities, resulting in shortages of food and water, escalating prices, property damages, prolonged periods of drought, and deteriorating air quality.
Additionally, vital urban infrastructure is significantly compromised, as extreme heat has the potential to impair roads, rail tracks, bridges, dams, and power lines. Structural impairments to buildings caused by extreme heat can intensify the demand for energy consumption and cooling, potentially overloading power stations, driving up energy costs, and exacerbating greenhouse gas emissions.
Considering these overwhelming effects, it is imperative that policymakers take proactive steps to alleviate the consequences of heightened instances of extreme heat, a trend accelerated by climate change in the region. Regional governments should, therefore, embrace a comprehensive policy strategy fostering timely cooperation among major stakeholders.
Minimising disruptions, damages
This strategy is aimed at safeguarding communities from the adverse impacts of extreme heat and bolstering their resilience against climate change. Notably, the development of heat action plans emerges as a pivotal measure to efficiently guide urban management and protect populations during periods of extreme heat; minimising disruptions, damages, and casualties.
Preparation is of paramount importance, highlighting the necessity for cities and communities to receive early heat alerts through diverse communication channels. This can be accomplished by implementing meteorological data systems that monitor temperature patterns, issue timely heatwave warnings, and evaluate the impact of intervention measures.
Urban planners have the capacity to alleviate the impacts of extreme heat by initiating large-scale tree planting initiatives, creating urban tree canopies, establishing green spaces within city neighbourhoods, and integrating heat-resistant public areas like cooling centers. As an example, the UAE has undertaken an extensive afforestation project, with the goal of planting 100 million mangroves by the year 2030.
In the pursuit of preserving crucial natural resources like water and energy, policymakers should enforce rigorous water conservation measures and promote energy-efficient systems. Buildings should be constructed with heat-resistant materials, efficient insulation, and should integrate features like air conditioning, green roofs, and green walls.
The UAE’s National Green Building Regulation serves as an exemplary case, striving to integrate essential sustainability measures in new buildings throughout the UAE through the adoption of energy and water-efficient solutions and mandatory sustainable construction practices.
To address food security issues, it’s essential to allocate resources to sustainable agricultural practices withstand the effects of extreme heat. Similarly, investing in robust, sustainable public transportation systems is crucial to offer the population reliable mobility options during heatwaves, reducing the dependence on heat-generating vehicles.
Comprehensive health care strategies must be formulated and efficiently implemented in response to extreme heatwaves. Healthcare facilities should be well-prepared with sufficient wards, medical equipment, cooling systems, and backup power systems during periods of high temperatures. Additionally, medical personnel and emergency responders should receive training to identify and address all heat-related emergencies.
In order to make populations more resilient, it is vital that public health awareness campaigns disseminate life-saving information. Information should encompass safeguarding against extreme heat risks, recognising heat-related illnesses and their common symptoms, emphasising the significance of staying hydrated, implementing cooling strategies, minimising outdoor activities, and providing emergency contact information for medical assistance when required.
Energy rebates offered to low-income individuals could alleviate costs associated with cooling expenses during hot months and periods. Legislations should protect and assist at-risk people to withstand the effects of extreme heat, which could include revisions to introducing mandatory breaks during peak hot hours, dispensing food and water, and building cooling hubs across cities.
The multifaceted and detrimental effects posed by extreme heat necessitate the implementation of proactive policies aimed at safeguarding the region’s populations and its various strategic interests.
Sara Al-Mulla is an Emirati civil servant with an interest in human development policy and literature