Rising heat wave deaths in the Middle East: adapting to a new normal and lessons for the world

In light of an escalating pattern of intense heat waves, the Middle East is bracing for an alarming increase in heat-related deaths. Despite existing gaps in public health planning, experts suggest that the region’s adaptability to extreme heat could offer invaluable insights for other parts of the globe.

On the occasion when Iraq’s temperatures threaten to exceed a searing 50 degrees Celsius, locals are granted a holiday and advised to remain indoors, according to Kholoud al-Amiry, founder of a Baghdad-based network for female journalists focusing on climate change. She noted, however, that local adaptation is largely self-driven due to perceived governmental neglect.

This neglect is especially concerning given the susceptibility of the Middle East’s population to extreme heat. According to recent research in Nature Sustainability, the majority of Middle Eastern inhabitants could face exposure to extreme heat by 2050 if global temperatures exceed a 1.5 degrees Celsius rise over the next 50 years.

Another paper published in The Lancet earlier this year warned that heat-related deaths in the Middle East and North Africa could rise from the current average of about two per 100,000 people annually to approximately 123 per 100,000 in the final two decades of the century. This equates to a likely 138,000 heat-related fatalities every year in Iraq alone by 2100.

These studies also highlighted the increased vulnerability of the ageing population and city dwellers to the deleterious effects of heat. By 2100, older people will outnumber the young in the region, and by the 2050s, nearly 70% of the population is expected to reside in major cities. Cities are particularly prone to high temperatures due to the urban heat island effect, caused by denser buildings, heat-absorbing asphalt streets, and a lack of greenery.

Eleni Myrivili, the global chief heat officer for UN Habitat, highlighted the urgent need for governments to increase awareness, preparedness, and resilience against this threat.

Despite most Middle Eastern countries passing laws on sustainable development and environmental protection, a comprehensive plan to address the long-term health effects of climate change remains elusive. This deficiency is especially evident in the lack of heat action plans, which could include government-run cooling centres, educational campaigns about heat safety, and urban tree planting initiatives.

The wealth divide in the region also influences adaptive capabilities. For instance, air conditioning can shield vulnerable populations in wealthier nations, such as the Gulf states, but it is not a feasible solution in poorer nations or for those unable to afford it.

However, there is also potential to learn from the region’s long history of adapting to high temperatures. Sylvia Bergh, a professor at the Erasmus University Rotterdam, highlighted the Middle East’s centuries-old strategies for dealing with water scarcity and hot climate, including “wind catcher” towers, irrigation tunnels, and screens instead of walls.

Moving forward, Myrivili and Bergh both believe local and urban authorities have a key role to play in raising awareness, increasing preparedness, and redesigning urban environments.

Researchers of The Lancet’s recent study also proposed that limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels could prevent over 80% of the projected heat-related deaths in the Middle East. This simpler, yet daunting proposition underscores the critical need for international cooperation in addressing climate change.

Image Credit: Mariam Soliman / Unsplash