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Heatwaves in Hajj: Here’s all about the devastating episode that killed nearly 1000 pilgrims in Saudi Arabia

Heatwaves in Hajj: Here’s all about the devastating episode that killed nearly 1000 pilgrims in Saudi Arabia
For the past few years, communicating the devastating perils of climate change was typically carried out by weaponising numbers, charts, and the occasional splattering of soup on paintings. Now, the process has turned far more visual and gruesome — the common man watches in anguish as unprecedented floods drown hundreds in Brazil, Kenya, and the UAE, while brutal heatwaves incapacitate elections in India.

The latest climate atrocity has befallen the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia, where blistering heatwaves have already killed an estimated 900 pilgrims during the annual Hajj rites. According to reports, temperatures have climbed to nearly 52°C in the city, where about 1.8 million devotees have gathered for the days-long outdoor procession.

Around 175,000 Indians also attended Hajj this year, of whom 68 Indian nationals have been confirmed dead by Saudi Arabian diplomats. According to an AFP report, these fatalities have been attributed to “natural causes” as well as “weather conditions.”
What is Hajj?
Just like Indian Hindus may indulge in the annual Kanwar, Amarnath or the Char Dham Yatras, many Muslims embark on a yearly Hajj pilgrimage to the sacred city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia. In Islam, Hajj — meaning pilgrimage made to the central religious ‘Kaaba’ monument—is considered a mandatory pious duty for all adult Muslims physically and financially capable of making the journey.

The process of pilgrimage takes around a week — with tens of hours outdoors—and takes place in the last month of the Islamic calendar. Since 2015, this has fallen during the Saudi Arabian summers, when temperatures typically cross 40°C. During certain rites such as the Tawaf, eating food is prohibited, but drinking is encouraged due to the risk of dehydration amid such hot environments. Barring the COVID-19 lockdown years, the Hajj pilgrimage typically draws millions of visitors to Mecca, resulting in severe levels of crowding.
What is the scale of the devastation?
While Saudi Arabia has refrained from provided official information on the tragic fatalities, they report that over 2,700 people suffered from “heat exhaustion” on Sunday alone. This comes despite large investments in stringent safety measures — a stark necessity considering that deaths due to heat and other causes have become a common sight during Hajj.
Why did it happen and what’s next?
Saudi Arabia, being an arid and hot region, can witness temperatures climbing to especially unbearable levels during its summer months. Further, these temperatures have continued to climb over the past few decades, courtesy of climate change. This can inflict a plethora of heat-related health issues on the devotees that take part in the outdoor pilgrimage during Hajj.

According to 2019 MIT research, worsening heat and humidity conditions are set to worsen in several areas where Hajj takes place, posing “extreme danger” to the pilgrims. These dangers are inevitable and will continue to mount even if substantial measures are taken to curb the effects of climate change, the study explains.

Further, as extreme conditions worsen, it lowers the tolerance of the heat-stressed pilgrims in crowds, leading to deadly confrontations and incidents. In 1990, a stampede killed nearly 1,500 people, while another led to the death of nearly a thousand people in 2015. According to MIT study author Elfatih Eltahir, these incidents coincided with peaks in temperature and humidity in the region.

“If you have crowding in a location,” notes Eltahir, “the harsher the weather conditions are, the more likely it is that crowding would lead to incidents.” Hajj will continue to take place in the hottest summer months of Saudi Arabia from 2047 to 2052, and again from 2079 to 2086.

Additionally, it is notable that a large number of the Hajj pilgrims constitute the elderly with ageing-related health conditions. For instance, about 40% of the thousands of Indonesians attending Hajj in 2023 were older devotees, according to the WHO. Health risks such as fatigue, dehydration, and infectious diseases such as COVID-19 and MERS-CoV have the capacity to cause more damage to such attendees.
What is being done to protect pilgrims during Hajj?
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) has already invested billions in constructing infrastructure such as air-conditioned tents for pilgrims who are able to avail these services. Further, numerous hospitals and clinics are set up in and around Mecca, with emergency response teams on standby to provide immediate medical attention. The availability of clean drinking water at various points prevents dehydration, and ample sanitation facilities help maintain hygiene and prevent the spread of diseases.

To manage any agitations, Saudi authorities schedule and stagger the times for different rites to avoid overcrowding. Significant infrastructure improvements, such as the expansion of the Jamarat Bridge and the Masjid al-Haram, have enhanced crowd flow. Clear signage, barriers, and guides help direct the movement of pilgrims, preventing bottlenecks and ensuring smooth transitions between different rites.


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