For Muslim pilgrimage, climate change poses health risks

Excessive heat puts pilgrims to Mecca at risk.
Excessive heat puts pilgrims to Mecca at risk.

Climate change-caused increases in heat and humidity could put Muslims making the pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia in "extreme danger", a new study warns.

This pilgrimage, known as the Hajj, involves several days of activities, including 20 to 30 hours outdoors.

The height of summer

The timing of the Hajj varies. This year, it was 9 to 14 August, and next year it will be 28 July to 2 August, during the hottest part of summer. The timing exposes participants to the risk of serious health problems during outdoor activities.

The Hajj will again take place at the height of summer between 2047 and 2052 and between 2079 and 2086, according to the authors of the study published recently in the journal Geophysical Review Letters.

They pointed out that the health threat will be present even if significant steps are taken to limit the impact of climate change, and the danger will be even greater if nothing is done.

"When it comes in the summer in Saudi Arabia, conditions become harsh, and a significant fraction of these activities are outdoors," said study author Elfatih Eltahir, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge.

Because the Hajj is "a very strong part of the culture" in Muslim communities, it's important for Saudi Arabian officials to prepare to reduce the health risks posed by extreme heat and humidity, he said.

Dangerous years ahead

In recent years, a number of protective measures have been put into place, including nozzles that provide a mist of water at some outdoor locations and widening some gathering spots to reduce overcrowding.

In the potentially dangerous years ahead, it may be necessary to severely limit the number of participants allowed to take part in the ritual, Eltahir said.

This study "should help in informing policy choices, including climate change mitigation policies as well as adaptation plans," Eltahir said in an MIT news release.

For the estimated 1.8 billion Muslims worldwide, Hajj is a religious duty that is to be performed at least once in a lifetime if health and finances allow.

Image credit: iStock

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