Winter morn-ings in Bangladesh are usually associated with charming sights and sounds—dew drops on fallen brown leaves, shimmering colours formed by sun rays on spider webs, marigolds, dahlias and mustard flowers, and the singing of thousands of migratory birds in the haors, beels and lakes.
Unfortunately, our charming, sunny winters have turned grey and gloomy nowadays, and much of the blame falls on climate change. The climate of Bangladesh is subtropical in the centre-north and tropical in the south, and we are supposed to have pleasantly warm winters from November to February, a short hot spring between March and May, and a long rainy season from June to October due to the summer monsoon. The actual winter usually begins in December and is characterised by warm and sunny days, followed by cool nights. Frequent cold waves, as we have been experiencing in recent times, are out of the usual pattern that our winters follow.
There are quite a few things to be noted in recent years about these cold waves. Of them, two are obvious. For one thing, it has been relentless in its pattern, and therefore, cumulative and gripping in its chilling effect. The other more weighty, record-breaking feature is the lowest temperature registered in seven decades. The mercury dropped to 4.5 degrees Celsius in December 2019, and it was 2.6 degrees Celsius at Tetulia and some other places in January 2018. The cold wave swept through the whole of this small country, causing immense suffering for the people not accustomed to such low temperatures. Not only is Bangladesh trembling in the grip of the cold, the western world and Europe, which is used to snow, is also going through extreme weather episodes. At least 62 people died due to cold related illnesses and fire incidents in Bangladesh this winter; the latter occurring because of people trying to keep warm by setting fire to twigs and garbage, in the absence of warm, winter clothing.
The Ministry of Disaster Management and Relief in Bangladesh, humanitarian organisations, NGOs, the private sector and well-off individuals normally distribute warm clothes, blankets, and food among poor people in different parts of the country to reduce their suffering. However, the cold waves tend to appear unpredictably and require comprehensive preparedness and response plans similar to the plans prepared during floods and cyclones. Bangladesh is now recognised for being quite efficient and advanced in disaster preparedness, particularly for these two disasters. The government, based on recent experiences, could strengthen the preparedness and response framework for cold waves, along with NGOs, the private sector and affected communities. The precautions that need to be taken for health, crops, livelihoods and stocks, as well as the availability of warm clothes and blankets, can be planned far ahead of the cold wave. Region wise mapping through assessment, responsibility and distribution plans, engaging departments and volunteers, and mobilising resources to be used and distributed via one, uniform channel could be a lifesaving effort in Bangladesh. The Ministry of Housing and Public Works could also explore better household design and materials, since heating systems do not exist and are rarely required in our houses. In addition, the Ministry of Disaster Management could aim for shelter arrangements if the situation deteriorates. These shelters should be made available to impoverished populations who live in makeshift homes. In addition, special assistance through local government for livestock and crops are needed.
A cold wave is a weather phenomenon that is distinguished by the cooling of air. It is a rapid fall in temperature within a 24-hour period, requiring substantially increased protection for agriculture, industry, commerce and social activities. People of Bangladesh are used to facing normal winter seasons where the average high temperature is 25.4 degrees Celsius and the average low temperature is 12.7 degrees Celsius, and where January is the coldest month in Dhaka. Bangladesh.But when the temperature falls down to a single digit, the cold wave turns into a disaster like situation. It can paralyse normal life, and is especially difficult for children and the elderly, who can be affected with various cold-related diseases. Crops, especially potato, wheat, Boro seedlings and vegetables, are vulnerable, particularly to long lasting cold waves. Farmers and day labourers cannot work in the field due to the cold. Thick fog, together with the harsh cold, disrupts movement of all modes of transport across the country, causing accidents.
Winter cold waves that are not considered cold in some areas, but cause temperatures significantly below average for another area, are also destructive. Areas with subtropical climates may recognise unusually cold, but perhaps barely freezing temperatures, as a cold wave. In such places, plant and animal life is less tolerant of such cold. Likewise, unusual cold waves that penetrate into tropical countries in which people do not normally insulate houses or have reliable heating may cause hypothermia. Occurrences of extreme low temperatures, in association with the incursion of dry cold winds from the north into the Indian subcontinent, are known as cold waves. Bangladesh has currently been experiencing severe cold waves in winter for the last few years.
These cold waves, which have the potential of turning into disasters, need to be addressed under a special preparedness programme of concerned authorities and organisations. Cold waves might come again and again in the coming days, particularly in the winter season, due to the negative effects of climate change. It is high time to undertake country wide mapping to identify extremely vulnerable communities, asses the suffering caused in recent times and formulate the responses required for such situations. It is necessary for the government, NGOs and the private sector to come up with long term plans that take into account the chronic vulnerability of people, particularly in the most poverty-stricken area of the country, due to cold waves. These programmes should not just aim to construct shelters and provide immediate relief; long term programmes are required to reduce vulnerabilities through improving livelihoods, increasing income and providing soft loans to buy winter clothes and medicines. Inclusion of cold-affected communities in the development programmes of the Government and other agencies with a proper vulnerability and capacity analysis could be a significant step towards improving their resilience. A comprehensive approach, instead of the sporadic “blanket distributions”, is urgently needed to increase the capacity of the most vulnerable sections of society, in both urban and rural areas.
Kazi Amdadul Hoque is Director, Strategic Planning, and Head of Climate Change Adaptation and Disaster Management in Friendship.