Cold waves add to health woes in Nepal's lowlands

Women warm themselves by a fire in Nepal
Cold waves add to health woes in Nepal's lowlands

KATHMANDU -- "My father died of a cold wave at home itself two years ago in January. He was shivering for two days, and I couldn't keep him warm or save him. I don't want my children to face a similar fate," 50-year-old Nepali Ram Dev Sada said in December, while he was cutting bamboo to use as the wall for his mud-made house.

Sada's village Boriya lies a few kilometers away from the town of Rajbiraj, the headquarters of Nepal's Saptari district in Province 2, which is often recognized for illiteracy and poverty.

Following damage in a monsoon-induced flood earlier this year, one side of Sada's house was covered by a colorful saree, the dress of the ethnic Madhesi women in the Terai region. His six-member family, including two wives and three children, sleep in the same wooden beds joined together and share the same blankets to prevent them from the cold, which has been severe in recent years.

Ram Dev Sada's daughter in bed
Ram Dev Sada's daughter sleeps in a bed made up of sacks filled with old clothes in Boriya village in eastern Nepal / Credit: Shristi Kafle

"I am afraid of the cold wave, it is a tough time for my family as we have only fire to keep ourselves warm. I just want winter to be over soon," Sada said.

Sada, who works as a labor on a daily wage basis, is worried about the extreme cold and the health problems it brings, particularly to his children. He said he earns 500 rupees (less than US$5) in an average day. That's enough to buy daily bread and butter, but never enough to buy warm clothes and shoes or an electric heater in winter.

This is not only the state of Sada's family. Every household in the poor and marginalized community of the Terai region carries a similar story of dealing with a harsh winter, where firewood is the only savior.

Badri Narayan Mandal, a social mobilizer from the local non-governmental organization Save the Saptari, has closely witnessed both the increasing heat and cold waves and their consequences in the Dalit community, one of the lowest castes in the country. He said it's the poor who mostly suffer as they lack appropriate winter clothes, bedding and blankets and have to depend upon fire for heating.

"When there is extreme heat or cold, people can't work outdoors. On foggy days, people usually stay inside the home with dependence upon the warmth of the fire. Poverty is the real problem here, climate change and its impacts have added to the misery," Mandal explained.

Among the seven provinces in Nepal, Province 2, where Saptari and other Terai districts are located, has the highest number of poor people. According to the government's Multidimensional Poverty Index released in 2018, more than 2.5 million people are multi-dimensionally poor in Province 2, which represents 35 percent of the total poor population.

Cold waves get extreme in the lowlands 

Cold waves typically occur from December to the end of January in at least 22 districts in Nepal. During the winter, these low-lying districts become colder than the mountainous region, which has minus-degree temperatures for at least half a year.

According to the Department of Hydrology and Meteorology, the cold waves start with the formation of thick clouds leading to fog for a whole day, and as western winds pick up, both the maximum and minimum temperature declines sharply.

The department's data shows that the length of foggy days is increasing compared to the past decade. Cold fog events have become more frequent and they last longer, from days to a month, with variations in their intensity and duration.

People warm themselves by a fire in Nepal
People try to keep themselves warm around a fire during a cold wave in December in Nepal’s Chitwan district / Credit: Sunil Sharma

Indira Kadel, head of the climate analysis unit at the Department of Hydrology and Meteorology, said that one has to examine four factors when analyzing cold wave trends: persistence, frequency, intensity and extent of cold. The cases of cold waves triggered by climate change have been severe particularly after the 1990s, she explained, with the worst in 2004, 2010 and 2017.

"There are many criteria to oversee the cold wave, which are different in different countries. In Nepal's context, we mostly see a sudden drop of at least 4- to 8-degree maximum temperature in a single day, and the continuation of such trend for over 24 hours," Kadel said.

This year, Nepal witnessed the first cold wave on Dec. 19, with the presence of a thick blanket of fog with no sign of sunshine in Terai districts, halting local people's daily lives and outdoor activities.

"Poverty is the real problem here, climate change and its impacts have added to the misery." - Badri Narayan Mandal


The Meteorological Forecasting Division regularly monitors the temperature and possibilities for cold waves, which highly depend upon western disturbances and cyclones in the Arabian Sea.

"When western wind or disturbances enter Nepal from the Mediterranean Sea, it brings moisture along with it," Ganga Nagarkoti, a meteorologist at the division, said.

That western disturbance develops in the Mediterranean Sea and enters Nepal through Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan, she added, and the cold wave usually occurs at the same time in Nepal's belt bordering Indian states.

Climate change exacerbates health problems

Experts claim that climate change has brought many changes in human health, either directly or indirectly, in mountainous and least-developed countries like Nepal.

Meghnath Dhimal, chief research officer at the National Health Research Council, said, "In a disaster-prone country like Nepal, there have been extreme climatic events like heavy rainfall, cold or heat wave, heavy flooding and landslides and even the recent tornado, which have resulted in the increase of deaths, injury and trauma."

According to the researcher, tropical diseases have also reached the Alpine region in recent years, which is an evident consequence of climate change. The contamination of water resources resulting in different illnesses like diarrhea is another example.

"There are many other factors like food poisoning, mental problems and psycho-social impacts due to climate change, but unfortunately we have not been able to document or study about them yet," Dhimal said.

According to data from the Nepal Health Research Council, 262 cold waves were recorded between 2001 and 2010. In that 10-year period, 376 people died, 80 people were injured, and 1,793 people were affected. The highest casualties were in 2004, with 108 deaths.

Dhimal said there are 42 deaths per year in Nepal on average due to the cold wave alone. However, since reporting is done under the Home Ministry instead of the Health Ministry, many cases go unreported. And since local people don't bother to opt post-mortem, many deaths triggered by the cold wave are not recorded.

Children, pregnant women and elderly people are at most risk from the extreme cold.

"Children are mostly admitted for pneumonia, cold diarrhea and skin diseases, while the elderly citizens mostly suffer from hypothermia and respiratory problems. There is a risk of death in both," said Chuman Lal Das, chief medical superintendent at Gajendra Narayan Singh Hospital based in Rajbiraj.

Aside from the direct impacts on human health, events like heat waves and cold waves also diminish the working capacity or productivity of people, particularly labors and industry workers. Many farmers are of the view that they have been affected in terms of low agricultural production leading to food insecurity and malnutrition among children.

Woman in a shelter during a cold snap in Nepal
A woman sits in front of a temporary shelter amid a cold snap in January 2019 in Kapilvastu district in western Nepal / Credit: Manoj Poudel

Poor preparedness

Shambhu Prasad Regmi, undersecretary at the National Emergency Operation Center under the Home Ministry, said that this year at least 11 Terai districts are being provided with one million rupees, while the remaining 11 will receive 500,000 rupees to address the cold wave.

According to the officer, the relief materials, which include blankets, firewood and warm clothes, will be provided to the most vulnerable and needy.

"Obviously, we have kept this issue as the top priority. Every year before winter begins, we prepare an action plan after consultation with different agencies and mobilize resources accordingly," Regmi said, adding that they are gradually mobilizing newly formed local governments for the implementation.

While the government authorities claim that they have considered the disaster with utmost urgency, local people expressed dissatisfaction, stating that they usually feel the government's visible presence only after the disaster hits hard and even then as a minimal relief-package distributor.

For its part, the Department of Hydrology and Meteorology admitted that there has not been much attention given to research about the increasing impacts of climate change, including its effect on cold waves.

"We lack research institutes compared to other countries," said Kadel, the climate analysis head. "Unfortunately, we don't even have a research unit, and there are not enough human resource as well. So, more attention and investment is required from the government side."

Banner image: Women with their young children huddle around a communal fire during a cold wave in December in Nepal’s Bara district / Credit: Laxman Nagarkoti

An earlier version of this story appeared in Xinhua News Agency on 29 Dec. 2019. A multimedia story was published in Nepal's popular online media in the Nepali language.

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