Deadly Pakistan heatwave that has killed hundreds shows signs of easing

Pakistani boys cooling off on a hot day in Peshawar. PHOTO: EPA

KARACHI (AFP/Bloomberg) - A deadly heatwave that has killed 2,000 in the past two weeks in southern Pakistan showed signs of easing on Wednesday, bringing some respite to the sweltering city of Karachi.

Temperatures in the city, which is Pakistan's largest and has seen the majority of the deaths, were forecast to peak at 38 deg C, down from the 40-plus deg C highs of recent days. Winds have shifted to the south-west, blowing cooler air into the port city from the Arabian Sea, and the Pakistani Met Office has predicted rain, which would bring lower temperatures.

Temperatures reaching 45 deg C have claimed about 1,500 lives in Karachi and 500 in other parts of southern Sindh province, according to Mr Anwaar Kazmi, a spokesman for rescue agency Edhi Foundation. Most of the victims have been elderly, he said.

"There is no space left in the government hospitals to keep the dead bodies," Mr Kazmi, who runs the largest private ambulance service in Karachi, said by phone on Wednesday. He said the death toll was a record from a heat wave.

The government has demanded urgent action to deal with the crisis, and the administration in Sindh province declared on Wednesday a public holiday to encourage people to stay indoors out of the sun.

Some residents on Tuesday took to hosing each other down with water to avoid collapsing from heat stroke.

A state of emergency is in force in hospitals which are struggling to cope with the 3,000 people affected by heatstroke and dehydration.

The change in weather will come as welcome relief for the economic hub, where maximum temperatures have hovered around 44 deg C to 45 deg C since Saturday.

The National Disaster Management Authority has been setting up dedicated heatstroke treatment centres to try to cope with the volume of patients.

Blasting summer heat is not unusual in Pakistan, and some parts of the country regularly experience higher temperatures than those seen in Karachi this week, without serious loss of life.

But this year's heatwave has coincided with the start of the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan, during which millions of devout Pakistanis abstain from food and drink from sunrise to sunset.

The majority of the deaths in Karachi have been among the poor and manual labourers who work outdoors, prompting clerics to urge those at risk of heatstroke not to fast.

The situation has not been helped by power cuts - a regular feature of life in Pakistan - which have stopped fans and air-conditioners from working.

Electricity shortages have crippled the water supply system in Karachi, hampering the pumping of millions of gallons of water to consumers, the state-run water utility said.

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