Kuwait and Iraq sizzle as mercury soars past 50 deg C

A man cooling off from the scorching summer heat in Baghdad, where the temperature measured at its international airport has reached 42 deg C or higher nearly every day since June 19.
A man cooling off from the scorching summer heat in Baghdad, where the temperature measured at its international airport has reached 42 deg C or higher nearly every day since June 19.PHOTO: REUTERS

BAGHDAD • The soaring temperature in Kuwait and Iraq has startled observers.

On July 22, the mercury climbed to 53 deg C in the southern Iraqi city of Basra. A day earlier, it reached 54 deg C in Mitribah, Kuwait. If confirmed by the World Meteorological Organisation, the two would mark the hottest temperatures ever recorded in the Eastern Hemisphere.

The bad news is not over for Iraqis with the heatwave expected to continue this week.

LIKE WALKING INTO A FIRE

It's like everything on your body - your skin, your eyes, your nose - starts to burn.

MS ZAINAB GUMAN, a 26-year-old university student who lives in Basra, on what it feels like when stepping outside.

Stepping outside is like "walking into a fire," said Ms Zainab Guman, a 26-year-old university student who lives in Basra. "It's like everything on your body - your skin, your eyes, your nose - starts to burn," she said.

Ms Zainab has rarely left home during daylight hours since June, when temperatures started rising above 49 deg C and metal objects outside turned into searing-hot hazards.

Around that time, Mr Aymen Karim also began feeling trapped. The 28-year-old engineer at a government-run oil company in Basra said employees were ordered to stay home for several days over the past month. He and his family try not to go outside before 7pm. "We're prisoners," he said.

Hospitals have seen an uptick in the number of people suffering from dehydration and heat exhaustion.

Tens of thousands of Iraqis displaced by battles between government forces and Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militants have endured the heat in tents and other makeshift shelters. Humanitarian organisations have been unable to reach all of them because of budget constraints, restrictions by Iraq's government and risks associated with operating in active war zones.

"A lot of these people are probably dying, but it's hard to know," said an official at an aid organisation who was not authorised to discuss the issue publicly, so spoke on the condition of anonymity.

In Baghdad, the capital, the temperature measured at its international airport has reached 42 deg C or higher nearly every day since June 19. The city has been 10 and even 20 degrees warmer than normal for this time of the year.

The government has declared multiple mandatory official holidays because of the heat. Even when that happens, many public employees have turned up to work anyway because of the air-conditioning available at government offices. Most Iraqi homes and businesses suffer daily power cuts for 12 hours or more.

And most Iraqis - unlike their rich neighbours in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia - are too poor to afford 24-hour air-conditioning anyway. Such a luxury requires paying expensive fees for gas-powered generators.

During daylight hours, Baghdad's streets are empty, but some businesses remain open.

It's either sweat at work or starve at home, said Mr Eissa Mohsen, who owns a fruit stand in the Karrada area of downtown Baghdad.

WASHINGTON POST

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 12, 2016, with the headline 'Kuwait and Iraq sizzle as mercury soars past 50 deg C'. Print Edition | Subscribe