Nepalis still dying of cold

Dogs huddle for warmth at a fireplace in Janakpur.

Just as it has every winter, the cold wave in Nepal’s Tarai has had a devastating impact on the livelihood of its people, but local governments have provided little to no support to the neediest. As a result, even in this day and age, Nepalis still die from the cold.

There are indications that the ground fog that covers the Indo-Gengetic plains that includes the Tarai is getting thicker and lasts longer because of a combination of moisture in the air due to the spread of irrigation and pollution. Water droplets stick to soot particles, and even the sun cannot burn the smog off during the day. 

“Only those who can afford it wear warm clothes here. Our children run around in hand me downs, and sometimes without one, even in winter,” says Lalmati Devi of Birganj. “We have had no income because of the lockdown, so we couldn’t buy warm clothes.”

Fog-bound Birganj, where the sun did not shine for days during the cold wave this month.

In Nepalganj 500km away to the west, passengers at the airport wait for days on end for flights, which are cancelled or delayed due to poor visibility. It is the same story in Dhangadi, Simra, Biratnagar and Bhadrapur.

“We have visibility of only 10-20 metres right now, it is too low to operate flights. This has been the case here for the past few days,” says Prem Nath Thakur, head of the Nepalganj Airport.  

Even a decade ago, the winter fog used to clear by afternoon. But in recent years it stays for days on end, sometimes for a week or more. People are trying to cope, but cannot seem to stay warm.

“When humidity is over 95% and visibility is below 1km, water droplets are suspended in the atmosphere or near the earth’s surface, like a thick cloud that touches the ground,” explains Archana Shrestha of the Department of Hydrology and Meteorology. “It is only at ground level, but it is persistent and doesn’t allow the sun to warm the ground, leading to a cold wave.”

Planes grounded at Nepalganj airport due to poor visibility this week.

The cold kills people. Either because of hypothermia, or indirectly through smoke inhalation inside the home as people try to keep warm. The problem lies in the lack of awareness about indoor air pollution, ventilation, insulation and as well as inappropriate architecture. Winter fog is getting thicker and lasts longer every passing year because of open agricultural burning, industrial emissions, transboundary pollution, wildfires and smog.

The cold wave on 21 January reduced the maximum temperature in Nepalganj to 14°C whereas it was 19.3°C in Jumla, which is at an altitude of 2,500m in the mountains.

The first recorded cold wave in the Tarai occurred in 1998. At that time, the difference between the minimum and maximum temperature was a mere 1.3°C, meaning the temperature was constant throughout the day. The longest cold wave recorded was in 2002/03 when it continued from 26 December to 27 January without any sunshine. Prior to this, a cold wave in the plains lasted from 15 December 1997 to 15 January 1998.

This year, the cold wave has hit the Tarai in short spells but they were no less menacing, particularly in central Nepal where they were longer and denser. In Mahottari, the fog was so thick people could hardly see a metre away. Families huddle inside their homes, and do not venture out unless there is an emergency. But like all other disasters, the poor are disproportionately affected by the cold wave.

"People with means have homes, warm clothes and heaters, they can even employ others if they are unable to work because of the cold," says Tula Narayan Shah (pictured right) of Nepal Madhes Foundation. "But even among the poor, women and Dalit in the Tarai are hit the hardest."

The Musahar community in this Province 2 district have homes built with public housing programs but with no roofs. Families do not have warm clothing or electricity. “It has been two years since we paid for the roof but we are still waiting, government does not listen to us,” says a local resident, Biraj Majhi.

Oftentimes, people burn straw in order to warm themselves from the cold. There are fatalities every year from fires. Nine people have died in house fires this winter alone. But these aren’t listed as deaths caused by the cold wave. Open burning to keep warm also degrades air quality further.

Bheri hospital in Nepalganj is often crowded with hypertension patients and those having difficulty breathing in the winter season.

“Generally, blood pressure increases during winter, even of those who have it under control, other chronic illnesses are also more pronounced and people need a higher doses of their medications,” explains cardiologist Krishna Prasad Adhikari. “There is also an increased risk of heart attacks as morning chill leads to spasms and narrowing of blood vessels. Covid has added to the risk.”

The cold wave also affects agriculture. Crops wilt without the sun, and insects infest the vegetable patches. 

Moreover, due to increased deforestation in the Chure, wild animals have moved down the plains, destroying crops as they search for food. But farmers are unable to stand guard during a cold wave and are forced to send their produce to the market before they have fully ripened.

Even by moderate estimates, cold spells affect at least 125,000 households in the Tarai every year and these numbers are increasing. The Cold Wave Contingency Action Plan has estimated that 50,000 people from 5,000 households in Saptari (where 19 people died of cold three years ago) would be affected this year. Another 30,000 and 6,500 households in Dang and Bardia.

Cold waves are listed as a disaster in Nepal now, and the District Disaster Management Committee has a plan to reduce its impact. Says Krishna Bahadur Katuwal, former Chief District Officer of Mahottarai: “No citizen should suffer from the cold wave or die from it. We are ready to respond and we have made arrangements through municipalities to distribute warm clothes, blankets and bedding.”

But in most places, such support is yet to reach the neediest of the bunch. “The CDO came for inspection a month ago, the help hasn’t reached us yet,” says Ramprit Sada of Kaira in Mahottari.

Adds Lalmati Devi of Birganj: “We haven’t received anything from the municipality, this is a Dalit neighbourhood. Our children just burn the cow dung to keep warm.”

Based on Episode 7 of Saglo Samaj, a tv magazine program produced by Himalmedia which is broadcast every Monday, at 8:30 pm on Dish Home Channel 130.

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