Saudi Arabia’s health minister has confirmed that more than 1,300 people have died during this year’s Hajj pilgrimage due to excessive heat.  

Almost 2 million people attended this year’s annual pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia, as temperatures soared, surpassing 51 degrees Celsius. The pilgrimage, which lasts several days, requires long-distance walking under direct sunlight, particularly when circling the Kaaba and praying on Mount Arafat.

The fatalities predominantly included the elderly and those suffering from chronic diseases, many of whom were reportedly unauthorised to undertake the pilgrimage.

Regrettably, one Australian was confirmed amongst them. He is believed to be a man from Sydney who spent his final moments in devotion to God. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade solemnly confirmed its provision of consular assistance to the bereaved family.

Climate scientists have said rising temperatures pose a growing threat to the spiritual journey. Although heat-related fatalities during the Hajj are not unprecedented, with records dating back to the 1400s, the outdoor rituals have coincided with the sweltering Saudi summer for several years now.

This tragic loss underscores the need for greater consideration of how the centuries-old tradition of Hajj must adapt to the realities of a changing climate.

Illustration: Muslim pilgrims use umbrellas to shade themselves from the sun. Source: Fadel Senna. AFP

In recent years, Hajj has been the site of several tragedies, including a stampede in 2015 that killed more than 2,200 people.

Each year, tens of thousands of pilgrims attempt to perform the Hajj through irregular channels due to the prohibitive costs of Hajj package tours. It has been reported that more than three-quarters of the deceased did not possess official permits, complicating the authorities’ efforts to determine the actual number of fatalities.

Off-the-books pilgrims also have greater health risks as they cannot access air-conditioned facilities provided by Saudi authorities along the Hajj route.

It is crucial to note that that Hajj is a requirement upon Muslims only if they possess the financial means. It is not an obligation for those who cannot afford or are otherwise unfit to travel.

Every individual should be able to fulfil this essential religious obligation irrespective of their circumstance, so long as they are authorised and able to travel. To mitigate the effects of extreme weather, adequate water, rest and cooling stations as well as support services must be at hand. With the future in mind, innovative climate-friendly solutions are required to safeguard the health and well-being of all pilgrims.

Our prayers go out to the grieving families during this difficult time.