‘The sun glared all day long out of a hard blue sky and an invisible inferno raged’

Even in May, when I was in Phoenix, America's fifth biggest city was devilishly hot

The saguaro cactus, very representative of Arizona, is tree-like but not the real thing and Phoenix desperately needs more tree cover. Photo: Rashmee Roshan Lall

Having been in Phoenix, Arizona in the third week of May, I quail at the thought of what America’s fifth-largest city must be like in mid-July. This whole month has been, according to the US media, “one of its longest stretches of 110-degree days”.

To get a measure of what that means, the average temperature of the human body is 98.6 degrees Farenheit. And 110 degrees Farenheit is a mere 20 degrees below the temperature that water would be considered hot. Also, 110 degrees Farenheit would be at the extreme end of the spectrum for warm water, which is to say the water would be very very warm, almost hot. Imagine living in a city that permanently feels like a very warm bath, veering to hot. A warm bath with very little water. Phoenix is conscious that it’s got dwindling supplies of groundwater.

Even in May, when I was in Phoenix and then its suburb, Maricopa, the sun glared all day long out of a hard blue sky, an invisible inferno raged and we couldn’t wait to get onto the train and head off elsewhere. (Even though we were bound for San Antonio, Texas, where too it was hot, at least that city was shaded by trees and the river walk that ran through it was cool and comfortable.)

In Phoenix, there was nothing like that. It was a hard, hot city and in the vicinity of the hotel near the airport at which we stayed, we saw evidence of how the poor, the desperate and the homeless were dealing with the blistering conditions. Homeless people peered at us through the bushes in which they were living on a street near the hotel. They seemed menacing but perhaps they were just desperate. And enervated. An emaciated black woman in brief shorts and a revealing top shook as if with ague as she struggled with the coffee machine at the convenience store in the gas station.

According to reports, fentanyl pills – cheap and easily available on the streets of Phoenix – are the way many of the city’s homeless anaesthetise themselves against the brutality of summer. According to the health department of Maricopa County, of which Phoenix is a part, drug use was a factor in more than half of the 425 heat-related deaths recorded last year in the county. The year 2020 is considered a gamechanger when heat-related deaths in Phoenix jumped by about 60%.

Phoenix can’t, of course, help its geography, which has bequeathed to it a hot desert climate.

But the city authorities’ behaviour seems unconscionable. Ignoring the reality of their situation, as well as the implications of global warming, Phoenix has allowed unchecked development. This has created urban heat islands across the city, sans green cover. Eighteen months ago, there were reports that Phoenix was falling behind on its 2010 master plan target of increasing tree canopy cover to 25 per cent by 2030 (from an estimated 11 per cent to 13 per cent at the time).

That doesn’t sound like a city that is preparing robustly and with blazing energy and determination to prevent a future of declining livability.

And then there’s that barmy decade-old deal to lease a large rural area west of Phoenix to a Saudi-owned company, allowing it to pump all the water it needs to grow alfalfa, which is then exported to feed Saudi Arabia’s dairy cows! We’ll look at that next.