Middle East bears brunt of 30-year rise in heatwave deaths

Syria, Lebanon and Kuwait among countries to see sharp rise in death rate linked to soaring temperatures

Worker seek shelter from the sun in Egypt, part of a region vulnerable to intense heatwaves. AFP
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The Middle East has been hit the hardest by a rise in global heatwave deaths over the past three decades, scientists have found.

Kuwait, Lebanon and Syria are among the countries where the rate of excess deaths due to extreme heat has jumped sharply.

In the western Asia region including the Middle East and nearby countries, there were about 4,300 heat deaths in a typical summer in the 2010s, up from 2,400 in the 1990s.

No other part of the world registered such an increase, according to the study by Australia's Monash University, China's Shandong University and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

Researchers said heatwaves were increasing “not only in frequency but also in severity and magnitude” due to climate change.

The new figures show how the “substantial mortality burden” is spread unevenly around the globe, said lead author Yuming Guo of Monash University in Melbourne.

These variations “suggest that there should be localised adaptation planning and risk management across all government levels”, he said.

According to figures shared with The National, Iraq has the region's highest rate of heatwave deaths with more than 1,000 a year in recent summers.

However, others have risen rapidly such as Syria, where a typical summer had 160 heat deaths during the 1990s but 420 during the war-torn 2010s.

There were large jumps in Lebanon and Kuwait. In the UAE and Saudi Arabia, the estimated number of deaths rose by less than the rate of increase for the overall population, meaning the rate fell.

Researchers said the area covering North Africa, the Arabian Peninsula and South Asia was a “region with high vulnerability”.

In India, an estimated 32,500 people die due to extreme heat every summer, amounting to more than a fifth of the world's total. The figures cover heatwaves lasting more than two days.

The figures for North Africa show Egypt suffering more than 2,000 heat deaths in a typical summer in the 2010s, up from 1,730 in the 1990s. Tunisia had a considerably higher death rate, as did Algeria.

There were also considerably higher death rates in parts of Europe, where temperatures are rising faster than the global average.

The world's average temperature is believed to have risen by more than 1.1°C compared with a pre-1900 benchmark, fuelled by human activities.

April was the 11th month in a row in which global temperatures hit a new record for that time of year.

Scientists warn the effects of heatwaves will be far worse if the world fails to curb global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels – a key target currently on course to be missed.

At 2°C warming, an “extreme extreme” of heat that was once a one-in-a-thousand chance might happen several times a year, forecasters on the UN's top climate panel say.

The Monash study warns extreme conditions can directly cause death by exhaustion or heatstroke but also worsen existing illnesses and psychiatric problems.

The study of heat deaths in 750 places was drawn up to correct what Prof Guo called “evidence from limited locations” on the impact of extreme weather.

Around the world, heatwaves are believed to account for about one in 100 deaths during the summer months.

Last year's Cop28 summit in the UAE hosted the first day of health-focused talks at a UN climate summit, with countries pledging to link the two issues.

Updated: May 14, 2024, 6:00 PM