The heat is killing us

An increasing number of Nepali workers in the Persian Gulf and Malaysia are dying of heat stress, and experts warn that the fatality rate could go up as the global average temperature rises in coming decades.

A recent study published in the journal Cardiology presents a strong correlation between average monthly afternoon heat levels and mortality among Nepali workers in Qatar. Of the total fatalities due to cardiovascular disease (CVD) among Nepalis, 58% occurred during the summer months and 22% in winter, mostly caused by heat stress. This is much higher than the global average of 15% of total deaths in the 25-35 age group being due to CVD.

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‘There was a strong correlation between average monthly afternoon heat levels and cardiovascular disease mortality. It is likely that a large proportion of these CVD deaths during hot months were due to serious heat stroke,’ the report states.

Nepali climate expert Ngamindra Dahal agrees: “Deaths of Nepali migrant workers in the Gulf due to excessive heat is not new, but the climate crisis has made working conditions outdoors hotter and more humid.”

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HEAT AND STRESS: Bishnu KC’s brother-in-law Keshar Khatri in his home village of Okharkot in Piuthan district preparing the cremation by the Jhimruk recently. KC died of heat stroke while working in Qatar. Pic: SHANKAR DAHAL

study of high-resolution climate models published in the journal Nature Climate Change projected that much of the Gulf region will be uninhabitable before the end of the century. The Persian Gulf is the fastest warming sea on the planet due to its shallowness, a process that is increasing humidity, making the mugginess worse.

Ironically, the part of the world that is exporting most fossil-fuel energy will now feel the brunt of the greenhouse warming caused by carbon emissions.

Climate simulations show that by 2090 average ‘wet bulb temperature’ – a combination of temperature and humidity – in cities like Dubai and Doha will exceed the threshold of human adaptability of 35°C, the temperature beyond which the human body is unable to survive more six hours at 70% humidity.

A recent investigative report by Inside Climate News and NBC News showed that at least 17 US soldiers have died of heat exposure during exercises at US military bases since 2008.

Many Nepali migrant workers in the Gulf are exposed to similar conditions since they work in construction, which requires them to be outdoors all day. Many of them are not properly briefed about the dangers of dehydration, and at the end of the work day return to chilly air-conditioned rooms.

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Bishnu KC from Okharkot village in Piuthan went to work in the Gulf 10 months ago. He often told his sister back home how difficult it was to work on the high scaffolding in the heat. KC came home in a coffin recently, just another of the 7,000 Nepalis who have died working overseas in the past 10 years. Others return with kidney problems, and need dialysis or transplants.

Says Dahal: “This problem is going to get worse. Pre-departure orientation for workers should emphasise how to cope with heat stress, and the importance of keeping hydrated.”

Dignity in life and death

Appalled by the sloppy treatment of dead overseas workers, Nepali activists petitioned the Supreme Court two years ago to demand autopsies to determine cause of death, and to provide a more dignified return home at Kathmandu airport.

The NGOs, Pourakhi Nepal and Law and Policy Forum for Social Justice, filed the public interest litigation writ demanding the right of migrant workers to a post-mortem and more respectful handover of bodies in a separate section at the airport. They won the case, but implementing agencies have been slow to act.

“We are heavily dependent on remittance from migrant workers but where is our respect for the individuals who make it happen?” asks Manju Gurung of Pourakhi Nepal. “We do not care for their working conditions, we mistreat them and we do not even respect them after they have died. The cause of death goes uninvestigated and their bodies are unmanaged.”

Activists claim that doctors in the destination countries are aware of the actual causes of the majority of these fatalities, but are often bribed by employers to pass them off as ‘natural deaths’.

In addition, many workplaces do not meet even the most basic standards of safety and minimum working conditions, they say, which often leads to occupational hazards that can result in death. If the real cause of death is revealed, employers are liable to pay hefty compensation and hence to try and cover up the true causes. Most deaths are described as ‘heart failure’, ‘natural’, or ‘cardio-vascular disease’.

Rising average temperatures in the Gulf region due to climate change have also increased the incidence of heat stress among those who have to work outdoors. Experts say many of the deaths of Nepali workers are due to heart failure cause by heat and overwork.

Apart from the daily average 2-3 migrant workers who arrive at Kathmandu airport in coffins, many others remain in morgues in the Gulf and Malaysia. Some are workers who ran away from their first employers after being dissatisfied with their pay and working conditions. Under the kafala system, they lacked passports and became undocumented workers. Without legal documents to verify their identity, the bodies have not made it back home. No one has an exact figure of such cases.

Lately, the Foreign Employment Board has updated its mandatory pre-departure orientation for migrant workers, making them more country-specific and relevant. They now include information on legal issues, working conditions and pay, cultural sensitivities and heat stress and the need to keep hydrated.

Gurung blames a lack of political will for the continued apathy, because it is ordinary citizens who are affected.  She adds: “It is the poorest who suffer, so it is not a priority for the government and our embassies in destination countries. Workers should be cared for, even after death.”

Sonia Awale


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