Fogbound TaraiThe thick winter fog in the plains is a metaphor for the country’s purposeless politics
No one in the Tarai remembers the winter fog being this dense and lasting so long. They are used to summer heat and sultry monsoons, but not a ground-hugging fog so thick that the sun does not shine for days, sometimes weeks.
There is no specific meteorological English term for the Indo-Gangetic शीतलहर, a phenomenon in which cold winter air saturates moisture at ground level. In the old days, the sun used to burn off the mist by mid-morning. But the spread of winter irrigation increased water vapour, allowing droplets to condense on tiny suspended particles in the soot and smog.
People burning straw and buffalo patties in smoky fires to stay warm increase air pollution, thickening the fog further. The sun does not get a chance to heat the ground and the fog lingers for days on end. The people of the lowlands are just not equipped to deal with these intense cold waves.
This murky miasma of winter is emblematic of Nepal’s current purposeless politics, with the 7-party coalition struggling to survive domestic and external efforts to dismantle it. The NC-UML rivalry over who gets to be the next president on 9 March is holding governance hostage.
The coalition calculus has implications for the plains: CK Raut’s Janamat and the Tharu-based Unmukti Party in the western Tarai are also in the 7-party coalition, but neither is happy with portfolios.
The media reports on the fog as a one-off event, not as a worsening trend. People are dying of exposure, but it is blamed on old age. It is not the cold that kills them, but poverty. Like all calamities in this disaster-prone country, it is the poorest who die first, neglected by society and state.
This year’s शीतलहर fog has not been as severe as 2022's, but it has lingered longer. And now that the winter is nearly over, the government and the media will again forget about this annual disaster till next year.
The fog closes schools, it affects crops, disrupts transport, and increases the incidence of respiratory infections and road accidents. People need to turn on lights in the daytime.
“Commerce grinds to a halt, factory production drops, workers report sick,” Madhesh Province chair of FNCCI Ganesh Lath told me one foggy afternoon when Birganj was colder than Kathmandu.
The people of the Tarai have been on a two-month hibernation. With the mercury now rising, they are stirring awake, but as usual the hardships will be forgotten until next winter.
There is not much we can do in the short-term, but precautions and relief measures that can be put in place.
With weather extremes induced by the climate crisis, the fog is likely going to be thicker and last longer in coming winters. More than 52% of Nepal’s population lives in the Tarai, and many parts of the plains have a lower per capita income than corresponding regions to the north.
An entrenched caste system and gender ostracisation means that the ‘lower’ castes and women bear the brunt of cold waves. Those affected by monsoon floods in Kailali were still in makeshift camps when the fog persisted this winter, many of their children have pneumonia.
Almost every household in Madhes Province has someone working in India, the Gulf or Malaysia. Many villages have only women, children and the elderly, and they are the ones most at risk from the cold. The men are usually seen huddled around smokey fires, while the women work outdoors or in smoky kitchens.
The provincial and federal governments need to prepare a hazard map of the Tarai for next year’s winter, and declare certain areas disaster zones. This is a calamity affecting more people than landslides and floods in the mountains.
The Department of Meteorology and Hydrology must have localised forecasts, and there must be cross border cooperation. The fog knows no boundary, and some weeks this winter, it stretched from Peshawar in Pakistan to Chittagong in Bangladesh right across the Indo-Gangetic plains.
Waiting till next December will be too late to save lives. Urgent action needs political will, which is in short supply in the present government dysfunction.