Getting ahead of deadly heat
The Start Network partners with the London School of Economics to forecast and mitigate a heatwave in Pakistan
In May this year, members in Pakistan raised a Start Fund alert for a heatwave, the alert was activated. Members had collectively analysed weather forecasts and had raised the alert before temperatures reached deadly levels. Start Network's Sarah Klassen discusses the challenges of forecasting heatwaves, and why a similar alert in 2017 was not activated.
In April 2017, a severe heatwave with temperatures as high as 50°C hit Pakistan, breaking temperature records across the country. Heatwaves tend not to capture media headlines the way that other hazards can in the humanitarian sector (take conflicts or disease outbreaks for example) - but they can be just as deadly.
When it’s extremely hot and humid, sweat isn’t able to evaporate, so heat accumulates in the body instead. Blood rushes to the skin to cool it down, which means less and less blood goes to the organs. The results can be fatal. In just 3 days in 2015, a heatwave killed more than 1200 people  in Karachi alone. In addition to the health impacts, the knock-on effects from heatwaves can be just as severe: increased power needs can lead to blackouts and water shortages, affecting hospitals, transport, and communication. The overall risk of heat-related illness or death has climbed steadily since 1980: 30% of the world’s population now live in places where temperatures can become fatal for at least 20 days a year. The humanitarian sector needs to get ahead of this deadly heat.
The Start Network launched the Crisis Anticipation Window in November 2016. For the first time, the 42 humanitarian charities that make up this network can apply for funding ahead of a potential crisis. Start members can use forecasting information to raise an alert to the network about an escalating risk of a crisis. This alert can trigger Start Funds which support projects to mitigate potential damage. The idea is: let’s no longer just wait and react to chaos after it unfolds -let’s move to the offensive.
The challenges of forecasting heatwaves
Anticipating heatwaves isn’t easy. It can be difficult to know where to look to get quality forecasts- there’s a lot of data out there. It can be confusing knowing where to get forecasts and what to do once you’ve got them. It’s a delicate balance between being close enough to the spike of the heatwave- when we’ve got a higher level of certainty about the forecast, but far enough away from the heatwave to actually implement anticipatory action. In the past, it’s been difficult to get the balance right.
On 18 April last year, Start Members in Pakistan submitted a heatwave anticipation alert to the Start Fund. Although decision makers felt that there was clear need, and the heatwave proved fatal, they decided not to activate the alert. Temperatures had already begun to spike and they felt that the alert was submitted too late to implement anticipatory action.
Humanitarians and academics come together to save lives
Building from this experience, the Start Fund began to collaborate with the London School of Economics (LSE) through a NERC funded project on improving weather information for disaster anticipation. The project aims to improve the practical use of forecasts to support anticipatory humanitarian action. Dr. Erica Thompson from LSE’s Centre for the Analysis of Time Series (CATS) is using statistical methods to analyse the reliability of forecasting sources, starting with heatwave forecasts in Pakistan. The goal was to ‘cut through the noise’ - to help the humanitarians on the ground make sense of the forecasts that they have.
In 2018, since the research has been published, for the first time Start Members in Pakistan have a shared understanding of where they should look for quality heatwave forecasts, how far in advance they can start accurately predicting a heatwave and how to use the data that’s available.
On 22 May, Start Members in Pakistan collectively analysed weather forecasts using the framework and information developed by LSE and they noticed an upcoming hot weather period in various parts of the country. They used this research to quickly raise an anticipation alert for a potential heatwave in Sindh. The heatwave season this year coincides with Ramadan, which means that those who are fasting will be particularly vulnerable.
This year, the alert was activated before temperatures reached deadly levels. Decision makers felt that the alert was timely and it included enough quality forecasting to release Start Funds. £70,000 was released to support anticipatory humanitarian action. Muslim Aid, ACF, ACTED and Trocaire are now implementing the project in partnership in Sindh province. Project activities were designed to complement the existing heatwave plans developed by local and national government authorities. The project will help humanitarians and their partners prepare for and mitigate the impacts of the heatwave, through a mass communication campaign. It also includes support to increase awareness of heatwave risks and mitigation among the district level authorities.
Since the alert, renewed conversations are taking place with the Pakistan Meteorological Department and the humanitarian community about how they can continue to work more closely together to anticipate deadly heat.
 The Independent, 2015: Pakistan heatwave death toll rises to 1250 as public urged to abstain from Ramadan fast