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Middle East: How prepared is it for extreme heat waves?

June 3, 2023

As intense heat becomes more frequent, the Middle East will see a rise in heat-related deaths. Despite public health planning gaps, experts say the region can teach us a lot about extreme heat.

A man walks toward livestock in the Saudi desert.
Average temperature highs in the summer in Saudi Arabia are around 38 degrees Celsius (100 Fahrenheit)Image: Franck Fife/AFP/Getty Images

When the thermometer threatens to rise over a baking 50 degrees Celsius (122 Fahrenheit) in Iraq, locals usually get a holiday and are told to stay inside, said Kholoud al-Amiry, founder of a Baghdad-based network for female journalists working on climate change stories.

"Usually we get that information on [the state-run television channel] Al Iraqiya, or it might be posted on Facebook," al-Amiry told DW. "They will tell you not to go to work and they also tell anybody who is vulnerable to stay inside. They also always tell us to put bowls of water out under the trees for the birds and other animals."

But that, al-Amiry said, is about it. Mostly Iraqis feel as though they're on their own in a heat wave.

"People learn to live with the heat and they adapt all the time," she continued. Adaptations include anything from refitting fans to make them more efficient to closing up the upper story of a house in the summer.

"Basically, Iraqis will try to solve these problems themselves because they don't have much faith that the government will help them," said al-Amiry.

An electronic sign shows the temperature and humidity in Kuwait City.
Heat waves are expected to reach temperatures of around 56 degrees Celsius in certain areas, and are likely to last for much longerImage: Yasser Al-Zayyat/AFP/Getty Images

The state's neglect of these sorts of problems comes despite the fact that, of all of the people in the world, those in the Middle East are most in danger from extreme heat.

Heat deaths set to rise in Middle East, North Africa

In May, new research was published in the science journal, Nature Sustainability, mapping out the impact of extreme heat around the world, should global temperatures rise by more than 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) over the next 50 years. Extreme heat is classified as the average annual temperature being up around 29 degrees Celsius.

The paper found that the majority of people in the Middle East will be exposed to extreme heat by 2050.

Migrant builders take a break while working at a construction site by the Corniche, in Doha, Qatar.
Human Rights Watch has said migrant laborers in Gulf states are at particular risk during Middle East heat wavesImage: Chandan Khanna/AFP/Getty Images

In April, another study published in British medical journal The Lancet looked at how many more heat-related deaths might occur in the Middle East and North Africa if the planet continues to warm. It said the number of locals in the region that would die of heat-related causes every year would likely rise from an average of about two such deaths per 100,000 people today to about 123 per 100,000 people in the last two decades of the century.

That means that by 2100, around 138,000 people would likely die of heat-related causes every year in Iraq.

Older people, city dwellers most at risk from heat

The Lancet study also noted that demographics and the increased movement of people into cities in the Middle East will have an impact on how extreme heat affects locals. By the 2050s, almost 70% of the population is expected to be living in big cities and by 2100, older people will outnumber the young in the region.

"Both advanced age and high population density are key risk factors for heat-related illness and mortality," wrote the study's authors from The London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and The Cyprus Institute.

This is because older people are more physically vulnerable. And cities tend to be hotter due to what's known as the "urban heat island" effect. This is caused by things like denser building, dark asphalt streets absorbing heat and a lack of foliage. Cities can be anywhere between 2 and 9 degrees Celsius warmer than surrounding countryside.

"Even though extreme heat is the deadliest meteorological hazard in an average year, it often is underestimated or ignored," Eleni Myrivili, the global chief heat officer for UN Habitat, the United Nations' Human Settlements Program, told DW. "To respond effectively to this threat, governments need to have a clear course of action to increase awareness, preparedness and resilience."

Better planning needed for extreme heat

Heat action plans help ordinary citizens deal with extreme heat. They may include everything from government-run "cooling centers" — public spaces where people can go to escape the heat and drink water — to preparatory measures, like educational campaigns about how to keep cool when it's very hot or planting more trees in cities.

Many European countries either already have these plans or are in the process of developing them. But most Middle Eastern nations do not, despite the rapidly increasing danger.

Although most countries in the Middle East have passed laws on sustainable development and environmental protection, many "still do not have a clear vision regarding how to address the long-term effects of climate change on public health," Qatar-based public health experts argued in the 2021 journal, Climate Change Law and Policy in the Middle East and North Africa Region. "Unfortunately, the mitigation and adaptation policies are at the disposal of national and economic interests," the experts wrote. At the same time, political conflicts and humanitarian disasters "deprioritize climate change issues," they noted.

There are also big differences between how wealthier nations in the region are able to adapt to extreme heat, researchers have said.

Air conditioning is just one example of how wealthier nations, like the Gulf states, protect vulnerable populations from heat. In poorer nations, however, or for locals who cannot afford to pay for it, this is not a viable solution.

Air conditioning funnels in a Qatar stadium.
During the 2022 FIFA World Cup, Qatar air-conditioned entire football stadiumsImage: Frank Hoermann/Sven Simon/IMAGO

Another example comes from Yemen, where there has been a civil war since 2014. Being able to forecast extreme heat events is a large part of state-sponsored heat action plans. But, as a 2022 report by the United Nation's World Food Program on forward planning for these kinds of events, noted, "in Yemen, previously well-established systems such as weather monitoring or social protection systems have been heavily impacted by conflict and in some cases ceased to provide services altogether."

What the Middle East could teach the world about heat

Having said that, some of the best potential ways of dealing with increasing extreme heat in the Middle East already exist.

People living in the region are used to high temperatures and they already tend to live in cooler housing, Sylvia Bergh, a professor in development management and governance at the Erasmus University Rotterdam, told DW.

The Middle East's "centuries-old traditional adaptations to deal with water scarcity and hot climate offer a valuable repository of human knowledge," Bergh pointed out in a 2022 article for the public policy research project at The American University in Cairo.

A driverless vehicle in a street at the site of Masdar City, a planned sustainable city project powered by renewable energy on the eastern outskirts of the Emirati capital Abu Dhabi.
In Abu Dhabi's Masdar City, streets are designed to take advantage of shade and wind. Temperatures inside the city can be as much as 15 degrees coolerImage: Mahmoud Khaled/AFP/Getty Images

Bergh outlined some of these adaptations in her article — things like "wind catcher" towers that funnel cool air into living areas, irrigation tunnels and screens instead of walls. 

There's so much to learn from this region, said the UN's Myrivili, an expert on urban resilience and extreme heat. "In Europe we talk about decolonization a lot," she told DW.

"I believe that part of what would make this meaningful is if we open ourselves to learning from the Global South instead of insisting on teaching. There is incredible knowledge and technologies fine-tuned for centuries to existing climate conditions that we can benefit from." 

Local governments can raise awareness, increase preparedness

For more immediate solutions, both Myrivili and Bergh believe that local and urban authorities will provide the best answers.

"There are three main types of actions that cities can, and should, take to respond to extreme heat," said Myrivili. "Raising awareness, increasing preparedness and redesigning the urban environment."

In Baghdad, local journalist al-Amiry has several suggestions for exactly that. "We need a dedicated emergency clinic for these events," she said, explaining that local authorities might let citizens know that the hospitals are full during a heat wave or sand storm but won't give them options for where else to go.

"We also need better information about extreme weather so we can prepare better — they usually only tell us one day in advance," she added. "And we need more trees planted and more green belts."

UN: Record global temperatures within next 5 years

For instance, she noted, Karbala is the only city in Iraq still trying to establish a large green belt around it. This is being done at the behest of the local council, with help from local religious authorities.

Researchers who authored the recent study in The Lancet have an even simpler, but also admittedly, potentially more difficult, suggestion. Over 80% of the heat-related deaths they are predicting in the Middle East could be prevented, they said. How? Just by limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels.

Edited by: Martin Kuebler