Extreme Temperature Diary- Sunday April 28th, 2024/Main Topic: More Deadly Heat Slated for Most of Africa

The ‘once-in-200-year’ heatwave in West Africa: How it wreaked havoc

FP Explainers  April 18, 2024, 17:53:23 IST

An extreme heatwave caught West Africa off guard. According to reports, the rise in temperatures is due to climate change caused by fossil fuels, with heat surpassing 48 degrees Celsius, leading to hundreds of deaths.

At the forefront of this crisis were countries like Mali and Burkina Faso, where the heatwave’s impact was most acutely felt. In Mali’s capital, Bamako, the Gabriel Toure Hospital recorded a staggering 102 deaths in just the initial days of April, with heat cited as a significant factor in many of these fatalities, especially among older individuals, as per a BBC report.

Researchers from the World Weather Attribution (WWA) group emphasised that without decades of reliance on fossil fuels and associated activities such as deforestation, such extreme temperatures — up to 1.5°C above normal — would not have been possible.

We explain how bad is the situation and what the future holds.

Deadly heat in West Africa

The West African nations of Mali and Burkina Faso experienced an exceptional heatwave from 1 April until 5 April, with soaring temperatures above 45 degrees Celsius triggering a large number of deaths. According to the WWA report on the Sahel region, temperatures in Mali and Burkina Faso reached once-in-200-year levels.

Climate change caused temperatures in Mali and Burkina Faso to be up to 1.5 degrees Celsius higher than normal, with nighttime temperatures two degrees higher than average, according to the report. Across the region, the five-day temperature increased by 1.4 degrees Celsius.

According to a WWA report on the Sahel region, temperatures in Mali and Burkina Faso reached once-in-200-year levels. Reuters

Observations and climate models used by researchers at the World Weather Attribution’s showed that “heatwaves with the magnitude observed in March and April 2024 in the region would have been impossible to occur without the global warming of 1.2C to date.”

“In a pre-industrial climate, we wouldn’t expect to see heatwaves at this intensity at all,” WWA statistician Clair Barnes told Reuters.

“It was the hottest that anyone in living memory has had to deal with (there),” she said.

More climate change-driven scorchers to come

While periods of high temperatures are common in the Sahel at this time of year, the report said that the April heatwave would have been 1.4 degrees Celsius cooler “if humans had not warmed the planet by burning fossil fuels”.

The length and severity of the extreme heat led to an increase in the number of deaths and hospitalisations in the two countries, despite their populations being acclimatised to high temperatures, the WWA said.

A lack of data in the affected countries makes it impossible to know the exact number of deaths, the WWA said, adding there were likely hundreds, if not thousands, of other heat-related casualties.

Countries in the Sahel region have had to contend with drought since the 1970s, as well as periods of intense rainfall from the 1990s.

The dwindling availability of water and pasture, compounded by the development of agricultural land, has disrupted the lives of pastoral populations and encouraged the emergence of armed groups that have extended their hold over vast swathes of territory in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger.

The risk, especially for older people

Extreme temperatures pose a great threat, particularly to older people in countries where access to air conditioning or even electric fans can be limited.

On Monday, standing at the hospital bedside, daughter Zeynabou Toure described how her mother quickly sickened in the heat at the start of April, prompting them to rush to hospital.

They were among an unusually high number of patients seeking care at the facility in Niger’s sun-baked capital Niamey, said doctor Andia Abdoul-Kader.

“We have seen more and more cases of dehydration,” he told Reuters in his office. “It really affects the elderly… four to five litres of water need to be replenished for the patient to return to normal.”

While Abdoul-Kader has not recorded excess deaths, Gabriel Toure Hospital in the capital of neighbouring Mali reported 102 deaths, likely heat-related, in the first four days of April. This compares to 130 deaths it recorded in total for the whole of April last year.

“This indicates an exceptional situation this year,” said one of the hospital’s department heads, doctor Djibo Mahamane Django, in an online video post on 5 April.

_With inputs from Reuters and AFP

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