Hajj 2024 dominated by rising temperatures in Saudi Arabia; officials warn of sweltering heat - Hindustan Times
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Hajj 2024 dominated by rising temperatures in Saudi Arabia; officials warn of sweltering heat

By | Posted by Krishna Priya Pallavi
Jun 12, 2024 12:12 PM IST

Saudi officials warn of sweltering heat for this year's Islamic pilgrimage. Observers highlight that regional long-term policy changes are needed.

This year's Islamic Hajj pilgrimage — which starts on June 14 — will not only be a once-in-a-lifetime experience for some 2 million Muslims from around 180 countries who travel to Saudi Arabia, it will also be a physical challenge as temperatures will be above average. (Also Read | Eid ul Adha 2024: What's Hajj and why it is significant for Muslims)

Elderly pilgrims are particularly vulnerable to higher temperatures like the ones expected in the heat wave during the upcoming Hajj. (DW/Amr Nabil/AP Photo/picture alliance)
Elderly pilgrims are particularly vulnerable to higher temperatures like the ones expected in the heat wave during the upcoming Hajj. (DW/Amr Nabil/AP Photo/picture alliance)

"The expected climate for Hajj this year will witness an increase in average temperatures of 1.5 to 2 degrees [Celsius] above normal in Mecca and Medina," national meteorology centre chief Ayman Ghulam said last week.

For Mecca, which is at the heart of the five-day Hajj pilgrimage, the increase likely spells an average temperature of around 44 degrees Celsius (111 degrees Fahrenheit).

To mitigate the expected heat, all main squares in Mecca and Medina have been equipped with misting systems and portable water stations. Also, the floor of the Great Mosque in Mecca as well as surrounding tents will be air-conditioned, the Saudi authorities promised.

Being outdoors is part of Hajj

The Hajj pilgrimage, however, cannot be undertaken in air-conditioned environments only. Despite the heat, it involves up to 30 hours outdoors, including standing on the plain of Mount Arafat for one day between sunrise and sunset, and walking for several hours along the outskirts of Mecca on other days.

In turn, the kingdom's official platform for planning the Hajj, which every able Muslim has to undertake once in their lifetime, highlights that heat exhaustion is one of the greatest risks of the pilgrimage.

In 2023, heat had also soared to 48 degrees Celsius (118 degrees Fahrenheit). Around 8,400 Hajj pilgrims suffered from heat-related stress, the local Saudi Gazette newspaper wrote at the time.

The actual number of cases, however, was most likely much higher as not everyone was admitted to clinics for suffering from heat strokes, exhaustion, dizziness or dehydration.

Furthermore, a study recently published in the Journal of Travel Medicine stated that Hajj pilgrims from less hot countries are 4.5 times more likely to die than locals who are more used to such high temperatures.

But rising temperatures don't only endanger pilgrims.

Change of climate policy necessary

A recent study by Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah University of Science and Technology confirmed that temperatures have risen by 0.4 degrees each decade in the last 40 years.

"Under the most extreme scenario, temperatures in the Arabian Peninsula could rise by 5.6°C by the end of the century," the authors wrote.

"Several projections assume that some parts of the Arabian Peninsula could become uninhabitable by the end of this century," Tobias Zumbrägel, researcher at the department for Human Geography at Heidelberg University, told DW.

Short-term solutions, such as misting the air, that aim to make the heat more bearable for the pilgrims only underline the extent to which the country is already suffering from the consequences of climate change, Zumbrägel added.

"Climate change in Saudi Arabia manifests itself in enormously greater heat and temporary heat waves, but also has a much broader spectrum of consequences," he said.

More sand- and wind storms, rising sea levels and less water in the already hyper-arid region are to be expected, he added.

And yet, Saudi Arabia's much pushed energy transformation — which is a part of the economic and societal overhaul dubbed Vision 2030 — that aims to move away from oil and gas sales and focuses on the expansion of renewable energies instead, is not only inadequate but in parts even contradicting, the researcher warns.

On the one hand, Saudi Arabia is clearly committed to shifting to green energy. On the other hand, it continues to be one of the world's leading oil exporters.

"Also, the use of climate-friendly technologies such as hydrogen cause further problems as the numerous and huge solar parks that are being built have to be regularly cleaned with fresh water," Zumbrägel said.

Another example is Riyadh's future King Salman Park which is promoted as the world's largest leisure park with an opulent green area.

"Such huge green projects exacerbate the water problem," he said, adding that "these contradictions show that climate change is being taken seriously, but that adjustments are only being made in certain sectors, while other aspects receive little attention."

In his view, policies that focus on international cooperation and research would be more suited to protect the population as well as the pilgrims from ongoing climate change.

Regional collaboration required

Andrew Gilmour, a former UN assistant secretary-general for human rights, author of "The Burning Question: Climate and Conflict — Why Does it Matter?" and executive director of the German Berghof Foundation, would go even further.

He considers cross-border collaboration key for mitigating climate change in the Middle East.

In this region, temperatures continue to warm twice as fast as in the rest of the world, according to Yale Climate Connections, a multimedia nonprofit focused on climate change.

"Saudi Arabia has the great fortune of having a massive sovereign wealth fund and therefore is able to diversify the economy," Gilmour told DW. "But one hopes that rich oil producers like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar or Bahrain will also have the willingness to help other oil producing countries like Iraq and Libya that are much poorer and do not have the means to invest in other entities," he said.

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