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Hajj pilgrimage threatened: Hundreds die in the heat

STORY: Nearly 2 million Muslims will complete the hajj pilgrimage this week, but extreme heat proved fatal to hundreds who made the journey to the Kaaba in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, last Friday. At least 562 people have reportedly died during the hajj, with Egypt reporting 307 dead and 118 missing, with temperatures exceeding 50 degrees Celsius. The timing of the hajj is based on the lunar year, and is pushed back 10 days each year. While the hajj is now approaching winter, in Saudi Arabia it will be in mid-summer by the 2040s. Climate scientist Fahad Saeed says these deaths point to future risks for millions of hajj pilgrims. “We need to prepare, we need to adapt, we need to put the adaptation option in place as much as possible. While we realise this will impact the centuries-old ritual, we still need to save people. At the same time, however, we must take climate action to stop global warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius. Anything beyond that and we put these pilgrims at risk of death.” Heat-related deaths during the hajj have been recorded since the 15th century. The pilgrims’ vulnerability stems from exertion, exposure and older age, as well as a simple lack of acclimatization to the heat.More than 2,000 people suffered heat stress during the hajj last year, according to Saudi authorities.A 2021 study in the journal Environmental Research Letters found that the risk of heatstroke for hajj pilgrims will increase fivefold if global temperatures rise 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit above pre-industrial levels.Still, pilgrims remain determined—for some, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime affair.“Hajj is the fifth pillar of Islam and an obligation for every able-bodied person, so you have to make an effort and get tired. Hajj is a difficult task, so you have to make an effort and perform the rituals even in the heat and crowds. You use an umbrella, drink water and pour it over your body to prevent dehydration. And the water sprinklers on the walkways help.” In 2016, Saudi Arabia introduced a warming strategy with shaded areas, water points every 500 meters and improved health care. Saudi health authorities advised pilgrims to drink plenty of fluids during this year's hajj and to avoid outdoor activities between 11am and 3pm.

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