Hajj Pilgrimage Death Toll Surpasses 1,300 Amid Blistering Heat

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A photograph of pilgrims performing Hajj around the Ka’aba amid scorching temperatures of over 49 degrees Celsius in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. Jun. 23, 2024 (KATC News)

The death toll during this year’s annual Hajj pilgrimage has surpassed 1,300 as pilgrims faced harsh temperatures in the desert kingdom, Saudi authorities announced. Temperatures reportedly reached highs of 49 degrees Celsius, particularly in the midday hours when the sun was most intense.

Saudi Health Minister Fahd bin Abdurrahman Al-Jalajel said that 83% of the 1,301 fatalities were unregistered pilgrims who had travelled long distances in the blazing heat in order to perform the Hajj rituals. Officials also commented that most deceased were Egyptians and a tally from the Associated Press highlighted the deaths of 165 pilgrims from Indonesia, 98 from India and dozens more from Jordan, Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria and Malaysia as well as two pilgrims from the US. Authorities said the bodies were currently being identified and would be subsequently buried in Mecca. The Saudi government mandates that all pilgrims must register and receive official authorisation to perform Hajj as part of their efforts to manage the crowds and implement logistical and safety measures appropriately. This registration also permits pilgrims access to facilities like healthcare, accommodation and water/cooling stations. Pilgrims who do not register not only put themselves at risk but also contribute to overcrowding and the strain on resources.

Deaths are not uncommon during Hajj, which often draws millions of Muslims from all corners of the globe. Stampedes, crowd surges and heat stroke are all frequent culprits for the loss of life during the pilgrimage yet this year’s number is unusually high. In fact, in 2015, a sudden crowd surge in Mina (a part of the Hajj pilgrimage) took the lives of 2,400 pilgrims and was the deadliest incident to strike the event. The majority of this year’s 1,301 deaths can be attributed to the extreme heat which caused heatstroke and dehydration, particularly among the vulnerable like the elderly whose bodies are less able to withstand these jarring conditions. Scientists have said that human-induced climate change and the subsequent global warming have undoubtedly exacerbated the extreme heat and led to more frequent and intense heat waves globally.

Hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam and a mandatory religious duty for Muslims who are physically and financially able to undertake it at least once in their lifetime. It is a pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia, which occurs annually during the Islamic month of Dhul-Hijjah. The window to perform Hajj only lasts between 5-6 days and thus the event is often very crowded with the immense number of pilgrims who arrive in Mecca to do it.

Critics have highlighted concerns over the inadequacy of measures taken to protect pilgrims from the extreme heat and crowd surges by the Saudi government, claiming the high number of deaths was due to an unorganized and insufficient management system. The Saudis have defended their management of the event, outlining the fact that the large majority of those deceased were unregistered pilgrims who bypassed regulations and thus were forced to traverse long distances in the soaring temperatures to perform the Hajj rituals.

Written by Rakan Pharaon

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