Saudi Arabia says over 1,300 Hajj pilgrims died in extreme heat

Riyadh has confirmed that more than 1,300 people died during the Hajj pilgrimage which took place during intense heat, and that most of the deceased did not have official permits.

“Regrettably, the number of mortalities reached 1,301, with 83 percent being unauthorised to perform Hajj and having walked long distances under direct sunlight, without adequate shelter or comfort,” the official Saudi Press Agency reported.

The dead came from more than 10 countries stretching from the United States to Indonesia, and some governments are continuing to update their totals.

Arab diplomats told AFP last week that the cause of death in most cases was heat-related.

Temperatures in Mecca this year climbed as high as 51.8C (125F), according to Saudi Arabia’s national meteorological centre.

Riyadh had not publicly commented on the deaths or provided its own toll until Sunday.

The Saudi health minister, Fahd al-Jalajel, on Sunday described the management of the Hajj this year as “successful”, SPA reported.

He said the health system “provided more than 465,000 specialised treatment services, including 141,000 services to those who didn’t obtain official authorisation to perform Hajj”, according to SPA, which summarised an interview he gave to the state-affiliated al-Ekhbariya channel.

Jalajel did not specify how many deaths Saudi officials attributed to heat.

“The health system addressed numerous cases of heat stress this year, with some individuals still under care,” SPA reported.

“Among the deceased were several elderly and chronically ill individuals,” it added.

The Hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam that all Muslims with the means must complete at least once in their lives.

Saudi officials have stated 1.8 million pilgrims took part this year, a similar number to last year, and that 1.6 million came from abroad.

For the past several years the mainly outdoor rituals have fallen during the sweltering Saudi summer.

The timing of the Hajj moves forward about 11 days each year in the Gregorian calendar, meaning that next year it will take place earlier in June, potentially in cooler conditions.

A 2019 study by the journal Geophysical Research Letters said because of climate change, heat stress for Hajj pilgrims will exceed the “extreme danger threshold” from 2047 to 2052 and 2079 to 2086, “with increasing frequency and intensity as the century progresses”.

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