A scorching heatwave currently ravaging Bangladesh has led to the temporary closure of primary and secondary schools, exacerbating the situation for residents who are unable to alleviate their discomfort due to frequent power outages. As weather officials cautioned that relief from the oppressive heat was not on the horizon, the maximum temperature skyrocketed to nearly 41 degrees Celsius (105.8 degrees Fahrenheit), a significant increase from the 32-degree Celsius (89.6 degrees Fahrenheit) mark recorded just ten days prior. The Bangladesh Meteorological Department further underscored that there was no immediate respite from the sweltering conditions.
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The scorching weather and prolonged power outages have caused distress among residents, with many seeking medical attention for heat-related illnesses. Water shortages have also become a widespread problem due to the heatwave and power cuts. Authorities have advised residents to stay indoors and stay hydrated, but the lack of electricity has disrupted water supply in many areas.
Experts have highlighted that climate change plays a role in the escalation of both the frequency and severity of heat waves, particularly during the summer months. The impact of climate change manifests in the form of more frequent, intense, and prolonged periods of scorching heat, posing significant challenges to the well-being and livelihoods of individuals in affected regions.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), a ‘heatwave’ is typically defined as a period of at least five consecutive days where temperatures are five degrees Celsius above the daily average. However, specific parameters may vary depending on the country and region.
In Bangladesh, the Bangladesh Meteorological Department classifies temperatures of 36 to 38 degrees Celsius as a mild heatwave, 38 to 40 degrees Celsius as a moderate heatwave, and temperatures above 40 degrees Celsius as an intense heatwave.
Meteorologist Dr. Muhammad Abul Kalam Mallik stated that the likelihood of temperatures decreasing before June 13 is minimal. He elaborated that dense cloud formations will commence on June 12, leading to a substantial possibility of widespread rainfall throughout the country from June 13 onwards. This anticipated rainfall is expected to result in a decline in temperature levels.
At present, Dhaka, Mymensingh, Khulna, and Barisal divisions, along with remnants of Rangpur and Rajshahi divisions, and Moulvibazar, Chandpur, and Noakhali districts, are experiencing a mild to moderate heatwave.
This year, the temperature rose to exceptional levels, particularly in April. By mid-April, Khulna, Rajshahi, Dhaka divisions, and their surrounding areas were experiencing mild to moderate heatwaves. Although there was some relief from rain and storms, a moderate to intense heatwave returned towards the end of the month.
On April 16, Dhaka recorded a temperature of 40.6 degrees Celsius, the highest in the city in 58 years. Rajshahi witnessed temperatures of 41.2 degrees Celsius, the highest in the country so far this year. Throughout April, eleven locations across Bangladesh recorded temperatures ranging from 36 to 40 degrees Celsius.
The intensity of the heatwave became apparent when the steel rail lines located outside Brahmanbaria town began to deform under extreme heat. Thanks to swift actions taken by the railways, significant rail accidents were successfully averted.
The heatwave temporarily eased due to the influence of Cyclone Mocha, a category four tropical cyclone that made landfall mainly in Myanmar and parts of Bangladesh’s coast on May 14 this year. However, once the influence of the cyclone dissipated, temperatures began to rise again.
Projections made prior to the summer indicated that temperatures in Bangladesh would gradually increase during this period. A World Bank report from 2021 warned that average temperature rises in Bangladesh are generally aligned with the global average. The report highlighted that the country would experience emerging hot and humid seasons, with Heat Index values exceeding 35 degrees Celsius.
Trends of heatwaves in Bangladesh
A 2019 study on heatwaves and associated large-scale circulation in Bangladesh provides insights into the locations of the highest temperatures recorded in the country from 1981 to 2016.
According to Mohan Kumar Das, a co-author of the study, several notable heatwaves occurred during this period. In Chuadanga and Ishwardi, one of the most prolonged heatwaves lasted for 62 days in 1995, with temperatures consistently exceeding 36 degrees Celsius. In Jashore, another heatwave persisted for 60 days in 2010. Additionally, in Rajshahi, a heatwave endured for 55 days in 1994. In 2014, Rajshahi experienced a heatwave lasting 79 days, while Mongla endured 51 days and Khulna 50 days.
These examples illustrate the long duration of heatwaves experienced in different parts of Bangladesh, highlighting the challenges faced by the population in coping with prolonged periods of extreme heat.
-Dr. Mallick highlighted that the current heatwave in Bangladesh is particularly intolerable due to the elevated humidity levels in the air. He explained that global warming has had an impact on Bangladesh, and the prevailing weather conditions are characterised by a nearly cloudless sky. The activity of El Niño has contributed to lower wind speeds, and there is a high presence of water vapor in the air. These factors combined intensify the discomfort experienced by the population. Additionally, Dr. Mallick noted that neighbouring countries also have high temperatures, further exacerbating the situation in Bangladesh.
Staying safe in heat
The ongoing heatwave presents significant risks, including the potential for heat strokes and cold-related illnesses. Medical professionals emphasise that untreated heat strokes can have immediate and long-term health consequences. The combination of the current record-breaking heatwave and persistent air pollution in urban areas poses a terrifying challenge for ordinary people, with the poor and disadvantaged being disproportionately affected.
Addressing the causes of the heatwave is complex, as they stem from various factors. There is no single entity to blame or seek immediate redressal from, and simple solutions are lacking. The icddr,b suggests that children and elderly individuals should remain indoors during the day, but this option is not feasible for many, especially day labourers and informal sector workers who cannot afford to skip work. Furthermore, due to the exorbitant prices of essential goods, people are compelled to endure the extreme heat while working, commuting, and even resting.
What to do to prevent heat stroke
Undeniably, human-induced climate change plays a significant role in the heatwave. It is an established fact that our cities, particularly Dhaka, suffer from poor planning. Structures are constructed on any available plot of land without consideration for their impact on the surrounding environment. Clusters of tall buildings obstruct wind flow and trap heat, while the extensive use of air conditioners contributes to higher temperatures.
Primary and Secondary schools called off
In the midst of its most prolonged heatwave in 50 years, Bangladesh has been compelled to close thousands of schools, while widespread power cuts exacerbate the distress experienced by local residents.
Bazlur Rashid, a senior official at the Bangladesh Meteorological Department, expressed that this heatwave is unparalleled since the country gained independence in 1971. The government has taken the measure of shutting down tens of thousands of primary schools, and electricity production has been significantly reduced, even as the demand for air conditioners and fans has surged.
On Monday, 5th June, 2023, the government was forced to suspend operations at its largest power plant due to the unaffordability of coal for fuel. The depreciation of the Bangladeshi taka by approximately 25% against the US dollar in the previous year has contributed to the increased costs of fuel imports and power utilities. Other power plants have also struggled to meet the rising demand, resulting in prolonged blackouts lasting for hours.
The heatwave initially began in April, eased in early May, and then returned at the end of last month. Forecasters predict that high temperatures will persist until the end of the week. Bazlur Rashid highlighted the exceptional nature of this year’s heatwave, with its duration lasting over two weeks, in contrast to the typical heatwaves that lasted only a few days or a week in the past.
Last month, a study conducted by the World Weather Attribution group revealed that climate change has made record-breaking deadly heatwaves in Bangladesh, India, Laos, and Thailand at least 30 times more likely.
In response to the heatwave, the government has directed all secondary educational institutions to remain closed on Thursday. The Secondary and Higher Education Division, citing the Bangladesh Meteorological Department, stated that the current mild, moderate, and severe heatwaves across the country are expected to continue for another 5-6 days. Similarly, the Primary Education Division has suspended primary classes until June 8, while secondary schools’ primary wing will remain closed until the same date.