Skift Take

As Saudi Arabia battles a fatal heatwave that has claimed over 1,000 lives during the Hajj pilgrimage, the global heat crisis continues to intensify.

More than 1,000 people have died while making the annual Muslim Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, according to an AFP tally on Thursday. Officials said the main cause of death is extreme heat in the region as temperatures surpass 120 degree Fahrenheit (125 degrees Celsius). Thousands more are being treated for heatstroke. 

Saudi Arabia is one of many countries hit by a fatal and unusually early heatwave that is causing deaths and disappearances among locals and tourists.

The numbers are changing constantly, with some coming from individual countries that have hundreds of citizens attending the Hajj and others from news sources like AFP and CNN. Saudi Arabia’s government has not yet released official figures.

According to CNN, 165 Indonesians, at least 41 Jordanians, 35 Tunisians, and 11 Iranians died. AFP said that Pakistan recorded 58 deaths. Another 22 Jordanians are missing and 26 Iranians are in the hospital. Malaysia, Indian, Senegal, Tunisia, and Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan region confirmed further deaths.

Attendees are supposed to get a permit and register for the Hajj. This allows the 1.8 million authorized pilgrims to access air-conditioned spaces offered by the Saudi authorities. However, the permitting process is costly. Each year, tens of thousands of visitors go through unofficial channels to attend. This group is even more vulnerable to the extreme heat.

Heat is the leading cause of weather-related deaths in the world, and can exacerbate underlying illnesses, according to the World Health Organization. 

On Wednesday, Delhi recorded its warmest night temperature in 55 years at just over 95 degrees Fahrenheit (35 Celsius). Greece had its earliest heatwave last week with multiple tourists dead or missing due to the extreme temperatures. Sicily, Italy is in the midst of a heatwave, recording temperatures at 98 degrees Fahrenheit (37 Celsius).

Saudi Arabian heatwaves are getting longer and hotter

Heatwaves in Saudi Arabia have increased in number, frequency, duration, and intensity over the past four decades, according to a 2023 study. The worst heatwaves occurred in the most recent decade (2012-2021). 

A 2019 study focused specifically on heat stress during the Hajj found that temperatures would “exceed extreme danger” thresholds starting in 2047 without mitigation. It says that “aggressive adaptation measures will be required.”

History of Hajj fatalities

This is not the first year pilgrims have faced death on their religious journey. In 2015, a stampede left 1,000 dead. In 1990, over 1,000 were killed when a massive crowd tried to push their way through a small tunnel. A ventilation system failure, combined with extreme heat and the volume of people left many in a panic, causing a stampede and suffocation. 

This year, however, the heat seems to be the primary cause of mass death for the first time. 

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Tags: climate change, religious travel, saudi arabia

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