Middle East people find novel ways to keep cool as temperatures soar

Populations accustomed to hot weather have been forced to improvise to beat the extreme heat

Soaring temperatures are baking much of the Middle East this week, wreaking havoc on the lives of millions in the region, where chronic power shortages compound the unforgiving climate.

From Cairo and Beirut to Baghdad and Amman, residents are showing hallmark ingenuity to deal with the heat: escaping to the cooler Lebanese mountains, jumping in the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in Iraq or putting together makeshift air conditioners.

In Egypt, some of the usually bustling streets of the capital were eerily quiet on Thursday with temperatures at their highest in at least five years, 43°C.

Beaches in sea resorts along the Mediterranean and the Red Sea had only a small fraction of the holidaymakers who flock there each summer, with most electing to stay indoors and switch on air conditioners.

The resultant high consumption of electricity led to power cuts in some resorts along the Mediterranean.

Authorities in Egypt, Jordan and Iraq have advised people to stay indoors and keep themselves hydrated.

“I am stressed out,” said a 70-year-old mother of three who lives in a densely populated central Cairo district. “The power went out at dawn and only came back at 10.30 this morning. I woke up the very moment my fan stopped whirring.”

Making things worse for Egypt’s 100 million people, temperatures are not expected to drop soon.

“The heatwave will stay with us for at least another week,” said Director of the Centre for Weather Analysis and Forecasts at the Egyptian Meteorological Authority, Mahmoud Shaheen. “Temperatures are 5-7°C, higher than normal for this time of year.”

In Iraq, where some of the world’s hottest weather has been recorded, the temperature of 50°C were registered in the south of the country. The capital, Baghdad, reached 46°C on Thursday, weather service spokesman Amir Al Jabiri said.

Temperatures are not forecast to drop before Sunday, he told The National.

That each and every summer brings searing heat has not equipped Iraqis to cope, particularly in recent years when lengthy power cuts – some lasting up to 15 hours – have made summer much more difficult to bear.

Iraqis, often praised for their resilience, carry on with their lives.

Ice cream, watermelon and cold drinks vendors make a crisp business roaming the streets and junctions of Baghdad. Shopkeepers in some parts of the city set up makeshift showers on pavements for anyone to use. Men and boys across much of the country swim in the Tigris or the Euphrates to cool off.

Iraqis with deep pockets head to the temperate climate of the mostly mountainous Kurdish region in the north. Mohammed Hassan, 51, a businessman from Baghdad, is one of those.

“We can’t cope with this temperature, the power cuts and high humidity. So, I bought an apartment in Dahouk [in Kurdistan] to stay there during the hottest months of summer,” said Mr Hassan, a father of three, who escaped there last month.

“Here, we can have fun visiting the resorts and going up the mountains.”

In Jordan, the temperature in the farming region of Ghor, south of the Dead Sea, soared to 45°C on Thursday. Amman, the capital, registered a peak of 37°C; too high for a city that sits 700 metres above sea level, but high enough to trigger power cuts due to heavy demand.

Thursday’s heat in the capital forced orthodontist Rania Ali to call her patients to cancel their appointments because of the power cuts.

“There has been no electricity since the morning. I called the electricity company and they said they cannot promise that power will be back today,” Dr Ali said.

Jordan’s power monopoly, the Jordan Electricity Company, said the total load on the network across the country was 3,200 megawatts on Thursday morning, compared with an all-time high of 3,630 megawatts last year.

In Beirut, temperatures this week hovered around the mid-30s but the city’s notorious humidity – close to 60 per cent on Thursday – made it feel more like 37°C. Power cuts, for years part of life in Lebanon, have made the heat far more difficult to cope with.

The cash-strapped national electricity company, Electricite du Liban, produces only a few hours of power a day. Normally, private generators would kick in but they are struggling because of a fuel shortage.

One popular solution is to buy an electric fan, but they remain prohibitively expensive for a large part of the impoverished population.

Columnist and podcast producer Ronnie Chatah bought one in May in anticipation of the heat and power cuts.

He has cobbled together a makeshift air-conditioning unit by placing frozen water bottles in front of the fan. “Otherwise, it’s a living hell,” he said.

Renewable energy solutions are even less affordable than electric fans.

A resident from France told The National he had received a quote to install solar panels on the roof of his office for $5,800. He declined, saying it would be easier to leave Lebanon.

Walid Kawas, 36, a taxi driver from Beirut, said he takes his wife and daughter for a drive with the air conditioning switched on.

But using the car to cool off brings Mr Kawas another problem: Lebanon’s growing fuel shortage, which causes long queues outside filling stations.

“But it’s good. At least, I have the AC on while I wait.”

Sunniva Rose in Beirut, Sinan Mahmoud in Baghdad and Khaled Yacoub Oweis in Amman contributed to this report

Updated: August 5th 2021, 6:23 PM