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'I felt like I was cooking': workers
fear for future as record heatwaves scorch Bangladesh


By Mosabber Hossain 


As temperatures pushed above 40 degrees Celsius in Bangladesh’s capital in April, Amina Begum - long accustomed to Dhaka’s humid summer heat - began to feel sick. 


Temperatures inside the home where she worked as a housemaid were already scorching, and as she prepared food over the family’s gas stove, she found herself suddenly very weak and struggling to stand. 


“I have never seen such heat in my life. I felt like I was cooking inside the fire,” the 45-year-old said, remembering how her skin became dry and red and her urine turned bright orange. 


Rushed to the hospital in a rickshaw by another maid, she spent five days recovering from heatstroke and dehydration. When she was released, she found she had lost her job in two of the five homes where she works each day. 


Now, with temperatures still well above normal, she struggles to sleep in the small, cheap room she shares with three other maids in a slum in Mohammadpur, on the western fringes of Dhaka. 


“There is no fan and the hot air cannot be removed with a hand fan”, she said. She worries what such extreme heat means for her future, particularly as temperatures continue to rise each year. 

“if it becomes too hot to work, I don't know how my family will continue. I have a 5-year old and elderly parents, and I'm very worried about their expenses." 

Amina Begum, 45-year-old housemaid in Bangladesh

Like many other countries in Asia, Bangladesh sweltered in April, suffering the highest number of consecutive heatwave days in 76 years, according to meteorologist Md. Bazlur Rashid, who works in the Bangladesh Meteorological Department’s storm warning centre. 


He said climate change-driven heatwaves ranked as “severe” - with temperatures 40 to 42 degrees Celsius (104 to 107 degrees Fahrenheit) - had affected three-quarters of the country over that period, an unprecedented situation, with a high of 43.8 degrees (111 degrees Fahrenheit) in the southwest district of Jashore at the end of April. 


Bangladesh’s Directorate General of Health Services (DGHS) reported 15 deaths across the country from heatstroke in April, but health officials said the number was likely to be much higher, both because data was collected only starting in late April, and because many deaths are not recorded as heat-related. 

April’s brutal heat - which climate scientists said was now 45 times more likely to occur in Bangladesh and other areas of South Asia as a result of climate change - also closed schools, kept workers away from their jobs, threatened crops and livestock, and boosted crowds at hospitals as families sought help for heat-related ailments.

surge in pneumonia

Aklima Begum took her daughter Sumaiya to Dhaka Shishu Hospital near the end of April, after noticing the 9-month-old had stopped playing and eating amid the extreme heat. 


Doctors found she had pneumonia - a disease that spiked in Bangladesh in April as temperatures soared. 


“The doctor said it was because of the abnormal weather,” said the girl’s mother, who found long queues of people waiting for help in front of the hospital’s emergency rooms during the extreme heat. 


Officials from the hospital, which specialises in treating children, said they had already admitted 270 pneumonia patients in the first 20 days of April, a huge hike compared to 226 admissions during all of last year. 


“We are really worried about the hot weather,” said Farhana Ahmed, an assistant professor at the hospital, who said pneumonia - caused by bacteria, viruses or fungus, and perhaps worsened by Dhaka’s combination of high heat and high humidity - had previously been mainly a cold-weather problem. 


Farhana said children had also been turning up in growing numbers with high fevers, diarrhoea, asthma and skin problems amid the relentless heat. 


As temperatures soared in April, in some cases past 42 degrees Celsius, Bangladesh also ordered the closure of all primary and secondary schools for two weeks, keeping about 33 million children temporarily out of classrooms, according to the international charity Save the Children. 


Such shutdowns are a particular risk for children from low-income families, and can lead to a greater risk of children dropping out of school, especially after similar shutdowns during the COVID-19 pandemic, noted scientists from the World Weather Attribution initiative, which assesses the role of climate change in extreme weather events. 


Bangladesh’s extreme heat also threatened to cut the country’s key rice crop and claimed 100,000 chickens a day over the last 10 days of April, according to the Bangladesh Poultry Association, with poultry farmers reporting $17 million in losses over the period. 

Woman holding sick baby at hospital

action on rising risks?

Saber Hossain Chowdhury, Bangladesh’s climate change minister, said an urban tree-planting effort for Dhaka would be planned, starting in June, to try to keep residents safer amid rising temperatures. 


“The heat flow over Bangladesh is very unbearable. Not only us but many countries of the world are facing it due to climate change,” he said. 


But scientists say effectively protecting vulnerable people from surging heatwaves will require many other changes, such as comprehensive heat preparedness plans, better access to affordable and climate-friendly cooling, and mandatory protections for vulnerable workers during extreme heat. 


Most crucial, they say, is slashing the still-widespread use of coal, oil and gas that is driving increasingly dangerous heat. 


For many of Bangladesh’s outdoor workers, who say stubbornly high temperatures have robbed them of some or much of their income, efforts to mitigate the heat can’t come soon enough. 


Hashem Mia, a 58-year-old rickshaw puller working near a train station in Dhaka, said each trip he made was taking much longer in the heat, and he’d been forced to slash his working hours, which once stretched 14 hours a day from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. 


“Extreme hot weather forces me to stop early, which is very frustrating,” he said. 


When he is working, “after a trip I need to drink water and take a rest beside the road,” he said, sweating in the 41 degree Celsius midday heat near the Agargaon train station. 

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