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As Europe Burns, Israel Shrugs Off Extreme Heat

Haaretz Editorial
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This photo provided by the fire brigade of the Gironde region (SDIS 33) shows a wildfire near Landiras, southwestern France, on Saturday.
This photo provided by the fire brigade of the Gironde region (SDIS 33) shows a wildfire near Landiras, southwestern France, on Saturday.Credit: AP
Haaretz Editorial

Europe is burning up in a terrible heat wave. Disregard for the climate crisis has led to temperatures that seem as if they were taken from some science fiction story – 47 degrees Celsius in Portugal, 45 in Spain, 41 in France. In London, forecasters are predicting that the temperature will exceed 40 degrees. Officials in Spain and Portugal say the heat has already claimed more than 600 victims, and in Britain, the authorities fear hundreds of deaths.

Heat waves are silent, lethal killers. They don’t cause death only through dehydration or heat stroke; they can also cause strokes and severe kidney damage and worsen chronic medical conditions like congestive heart failure. Rapid rises in the temperature outside undermine the body’s ability to regulate its internal temperature. According to the World Health Organization, more than 166,000 people died due to extreme temperatures between 1998 and 2017.

A year has passed since an investigative report in Haaretz showed that an extreme heat wave in May 2020 led to about 150 excess deaths in Israel. Following that report, Environmental Protection Minister Tamar Zandberg ordered her ministry to conduct a study that, for the first time, would examine the relationship between deaths and heat waves in this country. The study’s results were published last month and revealed a shocking fact – during the eight heat waves that hit Israel from 2012 through 2020, the study counted at least 363 excess deaths. The researchers also found that “on average, each heat wave in Israel is liable to lead to the deaths of 45 people whose lives might have been spared had suitable preparations been made.”

Despite these harsh findings, Israel isn’t prepared to cope with heat waves. The health system, the defense establishment and the welfare system haven’t made any changes in their work practices due to these findings. The National Emergency Management Authority – the Defense Ministry unit responsible for coordinating among all the emergency services – even announced after the report was published that it doesn’t see extreme heat waves as a grave enough threat to justify adding them to Israel’s official threat map.

According to Israel Meteorological Service data, the number of heat waves in Israel has already risen, and these waves are expected to become longer and more intense in the coming decades. Consequently, health, welfare and defense agencies must draft a plan to prepare for heat waves and help people get through them. There is a long list of necessary steps, such as distributing fans to senior citizens and people suffering from energy poverty who can’t afford to pay their electricity bills; opening cooling centers; and forbidding manual labor, such as construction work, during the hottest hours. In addition, hospitals should be ordered to monitor data on illness and deaths during heat waves, so that at least we will begin to know the death toll in real time and not just in hindsight.

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