As Dhaka is cooked, it is the poor who are suffering more
In August this year, the country experienced a searing heat wave where the average maximum temperature turned out to be a three-decade high. Now, a study published by the Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center has found that Dhaka is losing USD 6 billion worth of labour productivity each year due to heat stress from extreme temperatures. This amounts to over 8 percent of the city's annual labour output, and unless measures are taken to reduce global warming, this number could rise to 10 percent by 2050.
While there are other cities that are more exposed to heat stress, Dhaka is especially vulnerable due to its labour-intensive economy and low rate of active cooling.
Out of the 12 cities compared in the study, the situation in Dhaka is the worst. While there are other cities that are more exposed to heat stress, Dhaka is especially vulnerable due to its labour-intensive economy and low rate of active cooling. So, although climate change is making the already high temperatures and humidity in Dhaka substantially worse, it seems the city authorities have done little to alleviate the situation.
According to experts, greenery and water bodies have an important impact on reducing heat stress in urban areas. However, another study recently found that Dhaka has lost around 56 percent of its green spaces over the last three decades. The circumstances are similar in terms of Dhaka's wetlands, 22 percent of which are estimated to have been lost over the span of nearly a decade. And it is not just rapid urbanisation and encroachment of natural spaces that are heating up the capital. Last month, we were reminded once again of the disturbingly high volumes of untreated waste that are flowing into the rivers of Dhaka and slowly killing them, right under the noses of the same authorities in charge of protecting them.
Equally disturbing, but perhaps not surprising, is the fact that the poorest are the biggest victims of extreme temperatures. The new study found that in informal settlements where corrugated iron sheet are used on roofs, temperatures are typically 12 degree Celsius higher than the rest of Dhaka, since these trap heat during the day and do not radiate it fast enough at night. A lack of greenery and surrounding high-rise buildings blocking wind flow only add to their sufferings.
The highest worker productivity-related economic losses, too, are felt by the poor. The study found that in sectors such as garment manufacturing, transport, and retail trade, where wages can be lower than average, losses from heat stress already amount to around 10 percent of income. These are particularly high in industries where workers are in proximity to machinery or ovens, such as garment manufacturing or brick making. All the while, the glass buildings and constant use of air-conditioning of the urban rich and white-collar industries only continue to further heat up the city.
The situation is clearly untenable, and if urgent actions are not taken, it is not only the poor who will feel its impacts; our entire urban economy will be under stress. The unplanned urbanisation of Dhaka must be curbed by all means, and the authorities must demonstrate their commitment to creating a liveable city by taking concrete steps to reduce heat stress.