I originally wrote this for Republica.
I was born in Tarai and grew up with the cold there. I myself have had bitter experience of cold wave and also witnessed hardship of people during winter. I recalled the winter plight of people in the region earlier this month when I received a phone call from my parents.
“Son, winter is round the corner, so send warm clothes for family members,” said my mother.
During the conversation, I overheard someone urging my mother to give him a chance to talk to me. When my mother handed over the cell phone to him, he said, “If the cold wave does not claim me this winter, I could live another year too.” The elderly man’s answer reflected the impact of the cold wave in Tarai.
Winter is boon for those who can afford warmth, but it is bane for the poor and marginalized community. Children, pregnant women, elderly and disabled are among the hardest hit as temperature plunges.
Every year, dipping of mercury causes both human casualties and loss of property. This year’s winter has just set in since the beginning of December, and the cold wave has already claimed over dozens of lives in Tarai districts—Rautahat, Sarlahi, Mahottari, Siraha and Saptari. Nine people from Rautahat district alone have succumbed to the cold. Most of the deceased across the Tarai region were elderly and children and also from the poor and needy communities. Living through winter is an ordeal for those families without warm clothes, blankets and heating facility. Such family members sleep on hay bed and sit around fire to beat the chill.
Inhabitants of Tarai suffer from common cold, pneumonia, fever and respiratory problems during the winter. Many patients affected by cold wave have thronged to the hospitals. The number of such patients visiting the hospitals is on the rise. Recently, increasing cold has added to the woes of thousands of people displaced by the Babai flood in Bardiya, one of Tarai districts. The doctors involved in a free health camp organized last Thursday in one of the affected areas out of 20 VDCs and Gulariya municipality, found that the flood-hit locals, who are already living a miserable life, are now suffering from various cold-related diseases.
Cold wave over the past three years has already claimed the lives of 46 people across 15 districts, mostly in Tarai region, as per the record of National Emergency Operation Center (NEOC), the department under the Ministry of Home Affairs. Many of the incidents remain unreported though.
Sharp fall in the temperature also affects education as schools remain closed in the districts. Due to poor visibility and heavy fogs domestic flights are cancelled and road accidents take place.
Cold waves have adversely affected agriculture. Production of winter crops and vegetables like wheat, potato and tomato has diminished. Deforestation in the region has surged as locals are reportedly chopping down trees at random for firewood required for bonfire to make themselves warm.
Cold wave is an annual occurrence, putting lives of locals under threat every winter. Amid such scenario, it is not that authorities have just remained mute spectators but their efforts have failed to make any difference in the lives of the common people. Government authorities and kind-hearted social activists and organizations are currently providing warm clothes and blankets to affected and needy families in Tarai districts. District-based authorities including District Disaster Relief Committee (DDRC) has distributed firewood and made arrangement of furnace and bonfire at respective districts in order to protect locals from cold.
To prevent possible agricultural loss, district-based government agriculture facilities including District Agriculture Development Offices (DADO) could provide farmers required technical inputs. But above all, locals are not aware and conscious of basic ways to survive from cold wave. However, the authorities concerned, like in previous years, have repeatedly failed to educate them and they are yet to come up with proper strategies and preparedness plans to combat such problems.
Recently, the government has also made a decision to provide compensation of Rs 25,000 to each deceased family. But receiving the succor is not easy for the bereaved families as too much red tape and hassles are involved. Post-mortems are required to support claims of compensation and the families are often reluctant to bring their loved ones’ dead bodies for post-mortem.
Cold wave is not a natural phenomenon but the result of human activities, according to climate change experts. Adapting to the situation could positively address the impact on animal and plant lives. For instance, some of the crops that are affected due to severe cold should be planted in advance, according to agricultural experts.
Like other forms of natural disasters such as flood, fire and earthquake, authorities concerned should consider cold wave as one of the disasters and prepare contingency plans to minimize its adverse effects on human life and property. The government needs to allocate proper funds so that both the authorities and social organizations can raise greater awareness among the inhabitants of Tarai region and gather warm clothes, furnace and make other necessary arrangements to save them from excessive cold. Before the winter sets in, authorities should identify the target communities and effectively distribute the relief materials to them.