July 22, 2024

The Hajj is a time of great reverence for the Muslims who undertake the annual pilgrimage to Mecca in imitation of a pillar of Islam. But this year’s gathering was tinged with sadness as a sustained wave of extreme heat sent temperatures in the desert city soaring as high as 125 degrees, resulting in the deaths of at least 1,301 worshippers.

The government of Saudi Arabia released an official report of the deaths on Sunday. It noted that 83 percent of those killed by the heat were unauthorized pilgrims — meaning they were not among the 1.8 million visitors who were granted visas. Saudi Health Minister Fahd bin Abdurrahman Al-Jalajel said the identification and count of the casualties was delayed because many of them did not have identification. Associated Press reports.

Officials said the death toll could continue to rise as more unauthorized pilgrims are identified. Although deaths are not uncommon during the Hajj – at least 774 died last year – this year’s pilgrimage took place during a global heat wave that broke more than 1,000 temperature records on five continents, the Washington Post reports. The constant heat has killed 275 people in Delhi from Sunday.

“It should be clear that dangerous climate change is already upon us,” Michael Wehner, a climate scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, told the Post. “People will die from global warming this very day.”

If one of the five pillars of Islam, the Hajj is the foundation for Muslim life. Every practicing devotee who has the physical and financial means to do so is expected to make the pilgrimage to Mecca, a city about 50 miles from the Red Sea, at least once. Because there is more than 1.8 billion Muslims worldwide, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia provides each country with a quota of visas, which can cost the equivalent of several thousand US dollars. Every year, many pilgrims make the journey without the proper permits; Saudi officials estimate that “about 400,000 people” have done so this year, according to AFP.

Pilgrims with visas usually have access to air-conditioned buses, cooling tents and other facilities that unauthorized pilgrims often cannot use. The Saudi government noted that many of them “walked long distances under direct sunlight, without adequate shelter or comfort.” according to CNN. “Several elderly and chronically ill individuals” were among the dead.

One of them, a 70-year-old mother of five, sold her jewelery to make the journey but was unable to use the cooling tents and buses provided by the Saudi government to registered pilgrims, the BBC reports. On the second day of the Hajj, when temperatures reached 118 degrees, she was left to walk nearly 7.5 miles to Mount Arafat, where the faithful gather to pray and hear a sermon from the last place the prophet Muhammad preached. She later died on a street corner and was buried in Mecca.

Other pilgrims told CNN that there was not enough water, shade or medical assistance to support the crowds visiting holy places in and around the city. They frequently reported seeing people pass out, and walking past bodies covered in white sheets.

“To me it felt like there are too many people, there are not enough medics, so they are just waiting for the worst to happen and then they will step in,” Zirrar Ali, 40, who returned to London on Friday from his pilgrimage with his 70-year-old father, told CNN.

The Hajj is held during the twelfth month of the Islamic lunar calendar, which means the dates relative to the Gregorian calendar shift about 11 days each year, causing the pilgrimage to move through the seasons approximately every 33 years. Before the late 2010s, the Hajj took place in autumn, winter and spring months, giving the Saudi government enough time to prepare heat mitigation strategies in response to the last wave of heat-related deaths in the 1980s.

In 1985, the Hajj took place in August and drew just over 1 million pilgrims as temperatures reached a reported 130 degrees, causing more than 1,000 people die from heat-related causes. In response, Saudi authorities began implementing and expanding measures to help visitors cope with the heat, including air-conditioned tents and transport, sprinklers and free water and umbrellas. In a study published in March, researchers noted that these measures led to a significant drop in the rate at which pilgrims died of heat stroke, but also clarified that, as temperatures in Mecca rise at a rate roughly double the global average, “the increasing heat can surpass current mitigation efforts.” This makes it clear that enough work needs to be done for the Hajj to continue to be a viable option for Muslims worldwide – especially as many pilgrims are elderly, unable to attend until after a lifetime of saving and more vulnerable to the heat.

In the near future, the calendar shift of the Hajj means that the pilgrimage will take place in spring, winter and autumn in the next few years, with reduced likelihood of severe heat. But eventually the pilgrimage will take place again during the summer. At that point, two or so decades from now, the world will be even hotter than it is now, turning the rituals of the Hajj into a life-threatening ordeal for just about anyone entering the holy city of Mecca.

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