World faces growing threat of 'unbearable' heatwaves

In this photo taken on Aug 12, 2021, a person rides their bike as temperatures reach 97 degrees fahrenheit in Washington, DC.
According to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, July 2021 was the hottest month ever recorded on earth.PHOTO: AFP

LONDON (AFP) - From Death Valley to the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent to sub-Saharan Africa, global warming has already made daily life unbearable for millions of people.

If nothing is done to slow climate change, the record temperatures and deadly heatwaves it brings will only get worse, experts warn.

"Climate (change) is sort of steroids for the weather. It's loading the dice to make these sort of extreme events be more common," said Dr Zeke Hausfather, a climate expert at the Breakthrough Institute in California.

The hottest place in the world is officially Death Valley, California. There, too, temperatures are rising.

"If you look at the average temperature in Death Valley for a summer month... it has gotten much warmer in the last 20 years than it was before," said Ms Abby Wines, spokesman for the Death Valley National Park.

This summer, for the second year in a row, the area registered an astonishing 54.4 deg C. If confirmed by the World Meteorological Organisation, it would be the hottest temperature ever recorded with modern instruments.

According to the United States' National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, this July was the hottest month ever recorded on earth.

"We are affected a lot by this unbearable heat, and we poor are hit the hardest," said Ms Kuldeep Kaur, a resident of Sri Ganganagar in the northern Indian state of Rajasthan, bordering Pakistan.

Half a world away in western Canada, where a so-called "heat dome" pushed temperatures above 40 deg C this summer, north Vancouver resident Rosa lamented: "It's just unbearable. It's impossible to be out."

Rising temperatures are a driving force behind more frequent and intense droughts, wildfires, storms and even floods. The rising number of heatwaves is devastating for farming and agriculture and potentially fatal for humans.

"A flood is a few deaths, maybe a few dozen. We're talking about thousands of deaths every time we have a very large extreme heatwave. And we know that these heatwaves are multiplying," said climatologist Robert Vautard, head of France's Pierre-Simon Laplace Institute.

If the world warms by 2 deg C, a quarter of the world's population could face severe heatwaves at least once every five years, according to a draft United Nations report obtained by Agence France-Presse ahead of the COP26 climate summit opening on Sunday (Oct 31) in Glasgow, Scotland.

For the Bedouins of Saudi Arabia, heat is only too familiar.


Bedouin shepherds herding a flock of sheep in the occupied West Bank near the border with Jordan, on July 15, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

"I think it's at least 43 deg C now, and it's only 8.30-9am," said Saudi Bedouin Nayef al-Shammari, adding that it can reach 50 deg C during the day. "But we've got used to it, it's normal for us, we're not... worried about it."

The family of the 51-year-old and his father Saad, 75, have lived and worked in the Al Nufud Al-Kabir desert for generations, raising camels.

But, as temperatures rise to life-threatening levels, their livelihood and culture could soon be under threat.

"Even heat-tolerant animals in the region, for example some camels or goats, will be also affected, agriculture will be also affected, so this extreme heat will affect food production," said Mr George Zittis of the Cyprus Institute in Nicosia.

Legend has it that the marshes that straddle the famous Tigris and Euphrates rivers in Iraq were home to the biblical Garden of Eden. They, too, could soon be at risk.


Sprinklers releasing water vapour in a street to relieve pedestrians amid a heatwave in Dubai, on Aug 25, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

"The temperatures above 50 deg affect the fish, they affect animals, people and tourism," said local boat owner Razak Jabbar, who is considering leaving the marshland where he grew up.

With deadly heatwaves increasingly a fact of life across the globe, many are pinning their hopes on Glasgow.

"COP26 this November must mark the turning point. By then we need all countries to commit to achieve net zero emissions by the middle of the century, and to present clear, credible, long-term strategies to get there," said UN chief Antonio Guterres.