By Reaven D’Souza
Reports of cities in many countries broiling under the onslaught of record high summer temperatures were reminiscent of similar reports last year, and the year before that. According to the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES), a global climate and energy think-tank, hot days in a year are getting more intense, more frequent, and lasting longer.
Further confirmation of heat intensity this summer came from the European Union’s Copernicus Climate Change Service (C3S), which reported that July 2023 was the hottest month since 1880, and that for four consecutive days in July the average temperature exceeded previous records..
Sizzling summer heat seared countries across Europe, North Africa, and Asia, as well as in parts of North and South America. The intense temperatures sent people and animals scurrying to seek shelter in the shade, while infrastructure and utilities buckled under the heat. In towns and cities hit by heatwaves, warped roads disrupted transportation networks, and overstrained power grids and depleted water supplies struggled to keep pace with increased demand. The fiery heat also ignited blazing wildfires, dried up watering holes, destroyed entire hordes of livestock, and withered crops on farmlands. All-time high temperatures also impacted surface waters of the Mediterranean Sea, parts of North Atlantic Ocean, and in seas elsewhere, decimating vast tracts of coral reefs and marine life forms.
But scorching temperatures were just one of the many climate-related miseries that the world has had to confront in recent years. Coming on the back of unprecedented heatwaves since last year, the torrential rains that lashed mainland China in early August were the heaviest recorded in over 140 years. Severe downpours were also recorded in places across Asia, and in Europe, entire areas in countries stretching from Slovenia to Spain and Sweden were submerged by floodwaters. Canada also witnessed record heavy rains and flooding last summer, while parts of Alaska were inundated by waters from glacial melting.
Kuwait was no exception to the high temperatures witnessed elsewhere in summer. Although we in Kuwait are accustomed to high summer temperatures, the intensity and longer duration of peak temperatures over the last few years.have surprised many, and become a major cause for concern to health authorities and to policy- and decision-makers. Temperatures in June and July of this year were, once again, above decadal averages, and mirrored the record setting temperatures registered in 2022 and 2021, when Kuwait earned the daunting distinction of being among the hottest places on the planet.
Scorching summer temperatures in early August also strained electricity and water supplies, with the Ministry of Electricity, Water and Renewable Energy (MEW) forced to tap into its strategic reserves on 2 August when water consumption outpaced production by 29 million gallons.
The increase in electricity demand also led to the disconnection of two key transformers in South Surra, resulting in power disruptions to several areas in the Zahra’a region within the Hawalli Governorate. The alarming power and water fragility is likely to be repeated in coming years as the intensity of summer temperatures increase and new utility constructions continue to lag far behind annual growth in demand.
Increasing mean annual temperatures, changes in precipitation patterns,and potential rise in sea-level, along with changes brought on by extreme weather events are likely to have a severe impact on Kuwait in the decades ahead. In particular, high temperatures are likely to negatively impact the country’s economy, food security, power and water supplies, as well as the health and wellbeing of people in the country.
A health profiling of countries worldwide by the World Health Organization (WHO) titled ‘Climate and Health Country Profile’ found that under a ‘business as usual’ scenario and without effective measures to mitigate global greenhouse gas emissions, mean annual temperature in Kuwait could rise by about 6.2 degrees Celsius (°C) on average from 1990 to 2100. Also, without large investments in adaptation techniques and technologies, over half a million people in Kuwait could be affected annually by flooding caused by rise in sea-level between 2070 and 2100.
The WHO study also noted that climate change related hikes in mean annual temperature and the increase in intensity and frequency of heatwaves could result in a greater number of people being at risk of heat-related medical conditions. The elderly, children, pregnant women, the chronically ill, the socially isolated and at-risk occupational groups are particularly vulnerable to heat-related conditions. In Kuwait, under unmitigated global warming conditions, heat-related deaths in the elderly is projected to increase to about 51 deaths per 100,000 by 2080 compared to a baseline of under 3 deaths per 100,000 annually between 1961 and 1990.
Another international study, funded by the Kuwait Foundation for the Advancement of Sciences and led by Assistant Professor at the College of Public Health in Kuwait University, Dr. Barak AlAhmad, largely mirrored the WHO findings. The study warned that continued rise in temperatures in Kuwait will negatively affect people’s health, and increase the annual death rate. The study added that, relative to the temperatures in the first decade of this century from 2000 to 2009, the pace of temperature rise in Kuwait seen since 2010 has been ‘unprecedented’. In 2021, the average maximum temperature reached an all time high of 34.5°C.
The study estimated that Kuwait could witness an increase in average temperatures by 1.8 to 2.6°C by 2059, and 2.7 to 5.5°C by 2099. The researchers surmised that the expected increase in temperature could result in summer temperatures exceeding the 40°C mark in more than four months of a year. The study also indicated that exposure to high temperatures could lead to a deterioration in the health condition of those who have chronic diseases. Moreover, as a direct or indirect result of poor health outcomes caused by rising temperatures, there could be an increase by 5 to 11 percent in the country’s annual death rate.
Deleterious health effects of high temperature are compounded when combined with high relative humidity, with several studies confirming the strong correlation between high temperatures and increased humidity. In Kuwait, the high humidity and temperature witnessed since the start of August has already led to several stiflingly sultry days. With more of such days predicted in the weeks ahead, the authorities have issued health advisories that urge vulnerable people to remain in controlled temperature environments, so as to avoid or reduce exposure to the high moisture content in the air. People susceptible to chronic illnesses, as well as the elderly, children, pregnant women, and those with limited access to cooling resources are especially vulnerable to high humid temperatures.
Health authorities often refer to the heat index , also called ‘apparent temperature’, to indicate what the temperature feels like to the human body when relative humidity is combined with the high air temperature. The apparent temperature has several ramifications on the human body’s comfort. They point out that when ambient temperature rises and the body begins to get hot, it starts to perspire to cool itself off, but when the atmospheric moisture content is high, the perspiration rate decreases and the body gets warmer.
Studies show that prolonged exposure or physical activities when the heat index is at, or exceeds 40°C can lead to dangerous heat-related disorders that could culminate in death. It is also important to keep in mind that the heat index values reported by meteorologists and in the media are for shady locations. If a person is exposed to direct sunlight, the heat index value will be increased by as much as 10 degrees. Working, or engaging in other physical activities, outdoors during peak sunlight hours when both temperature and humidity are high can prove fatal.
In its initial submission to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), Kuwait had stated that the average daily temperatures in the summer typically range above 40°C and humidity in August and September months can reach levels above 95 percent. Considering this official data from Kuwait, it is only appropriate that the Public Authority of Manpower (PAM) extend its current ban on laborers working outdoors from 11am to 4pm from 1 June to 31 August, to the end of September.
With global summer temperatures projected to rise in the years ahead, and with increasing evidence of extreme weather patterns being linked to global climate change, scientists and research institutions have been keen to gain a better understanding of the temperature limit that humans can safely tolerate.
Studies conducted recently in the United Kingdom have found that at an outdoor temperature of 40 degrees Celsius, the body’s metabolic rate increased by 35 percent compared to the baseline ‘normal temperature’. Metabolic rate is the amount of energy our body uses to maintain its basic life-sustaining functions.
The study showed that the metabolic rate increased by a further 13 percent at 50 degrees C, or an increase of 48 percent compared to the ‘normal’. In other words, the hotter the outside temperature, the harder the body has to work to maintain basic body functions. The findings also set a theoretical limit to the temperature under which the body can continue to function normally. The findings are especially pertinent for places such as Kuwait where expected higher temperatures and humidity in the decades ahead are likely to make the large portions of the country uninhabitable for months at a stretch.
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the world has recorded a 1.1°C rise in temperature compared with the pre-industrial average in 1850-1900. The Paris Climate Accords signed by nations around the world in 2015 aims to limit this rise to below 2°C while pursuing efforts to limit the increase to 1.5°C. However, new studies show that the world will likely reach the 1.5°C threshold between 2033 and 2035, and likely warm up by two degrees Celsius by 2050.
Latest scientific observations and available data leaves no room for doubt that long-term global warming trend is due to human activities, largely from the burning of fossil-fuels, which have increased emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases (GHG) into the atmosphere.. As human-generated GHG emissions continue to flood the atmosphere, heatwaves and other intense weather patterns are projected to become more frequent and more extreme.
Humanity must clearly curb its use of fossil-fuels and cut the output of heat-trapping gases to limit the onset of extreme temperatures in future. It may take years or decades before the effects of reducing GHG begin to manifest in the climate system, but we need to start right now.