Heavily pregnant Sonari toils under the blazing sun in fields strewn with bright yellow melons in Pakistan’s Jacobabad, which became the hottest city on Earth last month.
Her 17-year-old neighbor Waderi, who gave birth a few weeks ago, has returned to work in temperatures that can exceed 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit), while her newborn baby lies on a blanket in the shade nearby. so she can feed him when he cries.
“When the heat comes on and we’re pregnant, we feel stressed,” says Sonari, who is in her mid-20s.
These women in southern Pakistan and millions like them around the world are on the brink of climate change.
Pregnant women exposed to heat for extended periods of time have a higher risk of complications, according to an analysis of 70 studies conducted on the problem since the mid-1990s.
For every 1°C rise in temperature, the number of stillbirths and preterm births increases by about 5 percent, according to a study conducted by several research institutions worldwide and published in the British Medical Journal in September 2020.
Women are particularly vulnerable to rising temperatures in poor countries on the front lines of climate change, as many have little choice but to continue their pregnancies and work shortly after giving birth, according to interviews with more than a dozen female residents of the Jacobabad area. as well as half a dozen development and human rights experts.
South Asia has been dealing with unusually high temperatures in recent months. According to scientists at World Weather Attribution, an international research collaboration, an extreme heat wave that scorched Pakistan and India in April was 30 times more likely due to climate change.
The approximately 200,000 residents of Jacobabad are well aware of its reputation as one of the world’s most popular cities. “If we go to hell, we’ll take a blanket” is a common joke in the area.
Sonari, who is in his twenties, and Waderi work with a dozen other women, some of whom are pregnant, in the melon fields about 10 km from the center of Jacobabad.
They begin each day at 6 a.m. with a short lunch break for housework and cooking before returning to the field to work until sunset. They describe leg pain, fainting, and discomfort while breastfeeding.
“It feels like nobody sees them, nobody cares about them,” aid worker Liza Khan said more broadly of the plight facing many women in Jacobabad and the wider Sindh region, which spans the Pakistan-India border. .
The harsh conditions many women face were tragically portrayed on May 14, when daytime temperatures in Jacobabad reached 51C (124F), making it the hottest city in the world at the time.
Due to widespread poverty and frequent power cuts, many people cannot afford or use air conditioning, or sometimes even a fan for cooling.
Potential strategies recommended by experts include providing clean energy stoves to replace open fire cooking, providing medical and social services for women during the early morning or evening hours when it is cooler, and replacing tin roofs through cooler material in white to keep solar radiation away from the house.
Most residents of Jacobabad depend on water supplies, which can cost between one-fifth and one-eighth of a household’s meager income. Yet it is often not enough and some families are forced to ration.
For young mother Razia, the sound of her six-month-old Tamanna crying in the midday heat was enough to persuade her to pour some of her precious water over the baby. Then she placed Tamanna in front of a fan and the child was visibly calmer, playing with her mother’s scarf.
Local officials said water shortages were partly due to power cuts, meaning water cannot be filtered and piped through the city.
Climate Change Minister Sherry Rehman told Reuters news agency that women are likely to bear the brunt of rising temperatures that continue to scorch the country, adding that future climate change policies must address the specific needs of women.
“A megatrend like climate change… poses a major threat to the well-being of unemployed women in rural areas and urban slums,” she said. “Pakistani women, especially on the margins, will be most affected.”
Rubina, Razia’s neighbor, frying onions and okra over an open fire, explains that she usually felt dizzy from the heat and tried to soak herself in water every time she cooked to avoid passing out. However, there was not always enough water to do that.
“Usually it ends before it’s time to buy more and we have to wait,” Rubina said as she supervised her children and grandchildren sharing a cup of water. “On the hot days without water or electricity, we wake up and pray only to God.”