But air conditioning will remain out of reach for many, even as it increasingly becomes a necessity. In 2014, Public Health England raised concerns that “the distribution of cooling systems may reflect socioeconomic inequalities unless they are heavily subsidised,” adding that rising fuel costs could further exacerbate this. And when we need to use less energy and cool the planet, not just our homes and offices, relying upon air conditioning is not a viable long-term plan – and certainly not for everyone.
‘In Cairo everything is suffocating’
Most of the research into heatwaves and public health has focused on western countries; Benmarhnia says more studies have been done on the city of Phoenix, Arizona, than the entire continent of Africa. But the problem is global, and especially pronounced across urban slums such as the ashwiyyat in Cairo, where temperatures during the city’s five-month-long summers have peaked at 46C (115F).
Traditionally Egyptians built low buildings close together, forming dense networks of shaded alleyways where people could keep cool during summer. But the rapid construction of high-rises and decreasing green spaces have made one of the fastest-growing cities in the world increasingly stifling. Subsidy cuts have brought about a rise of 18-42% in electricity costs, affecting many poor residents’ options for cooling down.
Um Hamad, 41, works as a cleaner and lives with his family in a small flat in Musturad in the city’s north. Though he considers them lucky to live on the relatively cool first floor, “in Cairo everything is suffocating”, he says. Hamad use fans and water to keep cool inside, but the water bill is becoming expensive . “There’s always that trick of sleeping on the floor, and we wear cotton clothes ,” he says. “The temperatures are harder to deal with for women who wear the hijab, so I always tell my daughters to wear only two layers and to wear bright colours.”
In a tight-knit cluster of urban dwellings in Giza, to Cairo’s south, Yassin Al-Ouqba, 42, a train maintenance worker, lives in a house built from a mixture of bricks and mud-bricks. In August, he says, it becomes “like an oven”. “I have a fan and I place it in front of a plate of ice so that it spreads cold air throughout the room. I spread cold water all over the sheets.”
Compounding the threat posed by the changing climate is the refugee crisis. The two are intimately linked, with extreme weather events often a factor in social, political and economic instability. A paper published in the journal Science in December found that if greenhouse gas emissions were not meaningfully reduced global asylum applications would increase by almost 200% by the end of the century.
On a plain north of Amman, some 80,000 Syrians live in the Za’atari refugee camp, a semi-permanent urban settlement set up six years ago and now considered Jordan’s fourth-largest city. Hamda Al-Marzouq, 27, arrived three years ago, fleeing airstrikes on her neighbourhood in the outskirts of Damascus.
Her husband had gone missing during the war, and she was desperate to save her young son and extended family. Eight of them now live in a prefabricated shelter, essentially a large metal box, which Al-Marzouq says turns into an oven during the summer.
It’s suffocating. We soak the towels and try to breathe through them
Hamda Al-Marzouq, Za’atari camp resident
“It’s a desert area, and we’re suffering,” she says by phone from the camp. “We have different ways of coping. We wake in the early morning and soak the floor with water. Then we sprinkle water on ourselves.” There is no daytime electricity, so fans are useless. When power does arrive at night, the desert has already cooled.
Many days, her family will wait until the evening to walk outside, wrapping wet towels around their heads. But the biggest problem are sandstorms, which can arrive violently during the summer months and engulf the camp for days. “We have to close the caravan windows,” she says, adding the room then gets hotter. “It’s suffocating. We soak the towels and try to breathe through them.”
Al-Marzouq’s five-year-old son suffers respiratory problems and keeps getting infections, while asthma is rife across the camp.
Water has also been an issue, with demand in northern Jordan – one of the most water-scarce countries in the world – surging following the refugee arrivals. A Unicef-led operation will see all households connected to a water network by October, which Al-Marzouq says has been a significant help.
“We used to collect water with jerry cans and had to carry it for long distances. Now, with the water network being operational, things are much easier. We don’t have to fight in a long queue to get our share of water. Now there is equity.”