The 12-year-old had collapsed as he walked home in the hot sun after suffocating all morning in a classroom without fans.
“The rickshaw driver had to carry my son. He couldn’t even walk,” said his mother, Shaheela Jamali, sitting by his bedside.
Located in the arid province of Sindh in central Pakistan, Jacobabad recorded temperatures of up to 51°C last weekend, during the last major heat wave to hit South Asia.
The city is located on “the front line of climate change”, says the deputy mayor, Abdul Hafeez Siyal. “The general quality of life here suffers.”
Jacobabad and the surrounding villages are home to over a million people, most of whom live in extreme poverty. The lack of water and electricity made the heat wave even more infernal.
Saeed was hospitalized in critical condition, doctors said. But his mother, driven by the desire to spare him a future of misery, has decided that he will return to school next week.
“We don’t want them to become labourers,” Ms. Jamali says of her children, her prostrate, tearful son by her side.
– “Like a fire that burns” –
Heatstroke, which occurs when the body is so overheated that it can no longer cool itself, can cause dizziness, nausea, swollen organs, blackouts, and even death.
According to nurse Bashir Ahmed, who treated Saeed at a recently opened heatstroke treatment center in Jacobabad, the number of patients arriving in serious condition is increasing day by day.
“Before, the heat wave peaked in June and July, but now it comes in May,” he says.
In addition to school children, workers who have no choice but to work all day in the sun are among the most vulnerable. So are the employees of the brick factories, who handle ovens that can reach 1,000°C and emit black smoke.
“The intense heat sometimes makes us want to vomit. But if I can’t work, I can’t earn a living,” says Rasheed Rind, an employee in one of these factories since childhood.
In Jacobabad, all of life revolves around the need to escape the deadly heat.
“It’s like a fire burning all around us. What we need most is electricity and water,” said Shafi Mohammad, a blacksmith.
But due to electricity shortages, the villages are only entitled to six hours of electricity per day, and Jacobabad to twelve hours. And drinking water is scarce, due to drought, government mismanagement of resources and pollution.
Khairun Nissa gave birth during the heat wave. She spent her last days of pregnancy sweating under a ceiling fan shared by her family of 13.
Her swaddled newborn is now at her side. “Of course, I’m very worried for him with this heat, but I know God will provide for us,” she said.
Outside their three-room house, where the smell of rotting rubbish and stagnant water wafts through the air, the government-installed water tap has run dry.
But the “water mafias” have taken over: unscrupulous individuals who draw drinking water from public reserves and transport it in canisters on carts pulled by donkeys.
– Choosing between eating or drinking –
At 20 rupees (25 euro cents) for 20 litres, the poorest families sometimes have to choose between eating and drinking.
In a village on the outskirts of the city, women get up at three in the morning and pump drinking water in full sun all day. But it’s never enough.
“We prefer drinking water to go to cattle first, because our livelihood depends on it,” says Abdul Sattar, a buffalo herder.
This principle admits of no exception, even when children suffer from skin diseases and diarrhea due to extreme heat.
“It’s a tough choice, but how would the children eat if the cattle died?” justifies Mr. Sattar.
During the warmer months, people from poor communities around Jacobabad often migrate to places where warmer temperatures allow them to work outdoors without risking death, and where water and electricity shortages are less severe. acute.
Sharaf Khatoon shares one of these makeshift camps with around 100 people, who survive on the meager rupees that the men of the families earn by doing odd jobs.
The heat often becomes so intense that they move their camp 300 kilometers away, to Quetta, where temperatures are up to twenty degrees cooler.
This year, the departure was delayed, as they struggled to raise the money needed for the trip.
– Chronic heatstroke –
“We have headaches, unusual heartbeats, skin problems, but there is nothing we can do about it,” Mr Khatoon complains.
Around him, the children spray themselves with brackish water spitting out from a manual pump, while the women wrap wet scarves around their heads.
At night, they sleep in the open to seek out the slightest hint of breeze.
For Professor Nausheen H. Anwar, a specialist in urban planning, the authorities can no longer be satisfied with emergency measures in the face of heat waves, but must think in the longer term.
“It’s important to take heat waves seriously, but chronic and prolonged exposure to heat is especially critical,” she warns.
“It is exacerbated in places like Jacobabad. The deterioration of infrastructure and access to water and electricity prevents people from coping with it,” she adds.
– Syncope at school –
Along a dry canal filled with garbage, hundreds of boys and a handful of girls rush to a public school to take their end-of-year exams.
They gather around a hand pump to gulp down cups of water, already exhausted before the day even begins.
“We try to keep the children’s spirits up, but the heat has an impact on their mental and physical health,” admits the headmaster, Rashid Ahmed Khalhoro.
He pleads for the government to advance the school holidays by one month, which normally begin in June, given the increasingly early arrival of the hot weather.
Some classrooms in the school are equipped with fans, but not all. When the electricity is cut, an hour after the start of classes, everyone is suffocating in the dark. Children sometimes have to retreat to the hallways.
When a child faints, which is common, teachers resuscitate him as best they can, with cold water purchased from nearby stores, fans or glucose tablets.
Boys describe to AFP how they suffer from daily headaches and diarrhoea, but show up to class every day, determined to complete their education.
“We are suffocating in the heat, we are sweating profusely, our clothes are soaked,” said Ali Raza, 15.
According to Khalhoro, the students are determined to break out of poverty and find jobs that will free them from the deadly heat.
“They are prepared as if they were on a battlefield, they know they have to achieve something,” he says.