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More Than 1,000 Perish During Hajj, With Most Deaths Attributed to Extreme Heat

Climate advocates warned that urgent action on fossil fuels is needed to avoid more deaths.

Medical team members evacuate a Muslim pilgrim, affected by the scorching heat, at the base of Mount Arafat, also known as Jabal al-Rahma or Mount of Mercy, during the annual Hajj pilgrimage on June 15, 2024.

More than 1,000 people participating in the Hajj to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, have died as of Thursday as temperatures in the holy city reached 125°F at the Grand Mosque.

The tragedy serves as an example of how the climate crisis is making mass gatherings more dangerous, especially in warmer parts of the world. Saudi Arabia is heating 50% faster than the rest of the Northern Hemisphere, and by 2050, The Washington Post and Carbon Plan estimated that temperatures would rise high enough in Mecca to make it dangerous to be in the sun for 182 days a year.

“Words fail. Words fail,” the activist group Climate Defiance wrote on social media in response to the deaths.

“Stop it with your vapid odes to incrementalism. Stop it with your 2050 pledges,” the group added. “Humanity is barreling to the brink. Open your eyes!”

“For so many, religious rituals are a sacred and central part of their identities,” the group continued. “Now merely practicing a faith proves a literal death sentence.”

Mecca is the holiest city in the Islamic religious tradition, and making the Hajj, or pilgrimage, there is one of Islam’s Five Pillars. The Hajj always draws hundreds of thousands of people from all over the world, with more than 1.8 million registered pilgrims attending this year. The timing depends on the Islamic calendar, which follows a lunar cycle. In 2024, it fell between June 14 and June 19 in the Gregorian calendar, coinciding with Saudi Arabia’s hotter period.

“The Hajj is considered one of the Five Pillars of Islam, along with belief in Allah, prayer, fasting, and charity. It is intended to be a sacred part of life,” Climate Defiance wrote. “Due to profit-driven, fossil-fueled global hearing, it is now a part of death.”

At the close of this year’s pilgrimage, a total of 1,081 people were reported dead as of Thursday, according to an Agence France-Presse tally based on official statements or diplomats’ reports. The majority — 658 — were from Egypt, and a Saudi diplomat told AFP that the heat was the primary cause of death.

“Ambulances were moving nonstop, collecting people left and right,” pilgrim Ahmad Bahaa, a 37-year-old Egyptian engineer who works in Saudi Arabia, told The Washington Post. “People were sleeping on the sidewalks… I saw someone right in front of our tent who collapsed and could not even move.”

Including Egypt, deaths were reported from around 10 countries, according to AFP: They included 183 from Indonesia, 58 from Pakistan, as well as fatalities from Malaysia, India, Jordan, Iran, Senegal, Tunisia, Sudan, and Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan region. Other countries including Jordan and Tunisia have said some of their citizens died because of high heat, The Associated Press reported. Saudi authorities reported more than 2,700 “heat exhaustion” cases on Sunday, according to AFP.

Due in part to the large numbers of people who attend, the Hajj can be dangerous even under ideal climactic conditions. In 2015, more than 2,400 people died in a stampede during the “Rami al-Jamarat,” or stoning of the devil, ritual in Mina, near Mecca. In total, more than 9,000 people have died at mass religious gatherings in the past 119 years, and more than 5,000 of those deaths were at the Hajj. Last year, the death toll was more than 300, according to AFP.

However, as public safety expert Milad Haghani wrote in The Conversation, “while most Hajj fatalities have been due to crowd crushes and stampedes, a new threat has emerged: extreme climate.”

Saudi Arabia has taken steps to protect pilgrims from extreme temperatures, such as informing pilgrims about heat risks, setting up field hospitals, and installing misting systems and portable water stations.

“Yet the extreme heat proved overwhelming,” Haghani noted, “indicating more needs to be done.”

There are other factors that exacerbate risk: Unregistered pilgrims, who attend unofficially to avoid paying for expensive permits, cannot enter air-conditioned areas set up for registered visitors, as AFP noted; 630 of the 658 Egyptians reported dead were unregistered, as were more than half of the overall death toll. Another factor is that many pilgrims attend the Hajj when they are older and have saved up the money to go, making them more vulnerable to heat-related complications.

“There has been a noted uptick in heat-related deaths as global warming gets worse but I have never heard of anything like what has happened over the Hajj in Saudi Arabia this year,” journalist Séamus Malekafzali posted on social media. “Over 1,000 people have died over the course of a week, almost all from heatstroke.”

“There is already significant infrastructure to deal with the Gulf Arab heat around Mecca and Medina, but I don’t know if there is a way to outpace the massive amounts of heat and humidity that is going to beset southwestern Saudi Arabia,” Malekafzali continued. “Even in December, it can get above 100°F.”

Jeff Goodell, author of the book The Heat Will Kill You First, wrote on social media in response to the deaths that “our world was built for a climate that no longer exists.”

The situation is likely to get worse as the burning of fossil fuels continues to push global temperatures higher. The Post analysis finding that Mecca would be dangerous in the sun for more than half the year by 2050 also found it would see 54 days dangerous even in the shade.

“Let that sink in. Fossil fuels will have caused the holiest city in Islam to be virtually uninhabitable for 50% of the year,” Climate Defiance wrote.

A Saudi study published in March found that dry-bulb temperatures in Mecca had risen by 0.4°C per decade and wet-bulb (which incorporates humidity) by 2°C. A 2019 study by Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers concluded that, even with emissions cuts, the Hajj would take place while temperatures surpassed the “extreme danger” limit between 2047 and 2052 and again between 2079 and 2086.

“Climate change does not discriminate by religion, ethnicity, nationality,” Marina Romanello, the executive director of The Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change, wrote on social media. “Hundreds died in the pilgrimage to Mecca, practicing their sacred ritual, as temperatures rise to nearly 50°C [122°F]. Unless we take urgent action, this will be just the beginning.”

Climate Defiance concluded: “This loss of life is a tragedy and sadly it’s also a harbinger of what is to come. The pilgrims who perished are there canary in the coal mine. We must mourn their deaths, but we must also ACT. It is not too late but time is running out. This is not a drill. This is a fire.”

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