A photo of devotees lying on the floor of a national mosque in Bangladesh after afternoon prayers captured the oppressive heatwave’s impact. The railway authorities slowed down trains to prevent accidents due to the higher temperature of the tracks. Health experts advised staying indoors to avoid heatstroke, and even the jail authorities took measures to keep inmates cool. But with temperatures “really feeling” like 50 degrees, imagine those who can’t escape the heat.
In a country with deep-running inequality, the heatwave affects people differently. Those with air conditioning at home, in their car, and at work are better equipped to deal with it. But for those who take the bus, operate a roadside stall, or drive a rickshaw, the heat can feel unbearable. The rich have been hunkered down in cool homes, offices, and shopping malls, while the poor have been left to suffer.
Dhaka’s recent hottest day in 58 years has highlighted the stark disparities between the rich and poor during extreme weather events. Climate change is making heatwaves more frequent and intense, and it’s the poorest nations that are being hit the hardest.
- A report published in the journal Science Advances last year showed periods of extreme heat cost the global economy about $16 trillion between 1992 and 2013.
- While the richest countries lost only 1.5% of their annual per capita GDPs dealing with heatwaves, poorer countries lost a staggering 6.7%.
- Another report showed that lower-income people worldwide are 40% more exposed to heatwaves than those with higher incomes.
It’s tragic that those who contribute the least to climate change are bearing the heaviest burden.
The reality is that Dhaka and other major cities in Bangladesh are woefully unprepared for this increasing temperature. The breakneck pace of urbanization, combined with a staggering population density and the loss of green spaces and water bodies, only intensifies the impact of the heat. Where will an exhausted rickshaw puller turn for relief when the comforting shade of the old ficus tree is no longer there? It’s not as if the wealthy will welcome them into their air-conditioned shopping malls to escape the heat, will they?
According to a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) journal, Dhaka is among the worst-affected cities in the world when it comes to urban heat. The study found that many areas in Dhaka, Chattogram, and Khulna are turning into “urban heat islands.” Urban heat islands are formed when cities replace natural land cover with dense concentrations of pavement, buildings, and other surfaces that absorb and retain heat. This leads to increased energy costs, air pollution levels, heat-related illnesses, and mortality. It is clear that we are stuck in a vicious cycle. To combat this, we need both national and global action.
Wealthy countries, which are disproportionately responsible for the climate crisis, have a double responsibility to cut emissions at home and support developing nations with the costs of replanting crops, rebuilding homes after storms, and transitioning to cleaner, lower-carbon energy sources. Additionally, we need national actions such as implementation of the National Adaptation Plan (NAP) and the Mujib Climate Prosperity Plan (MCPP), and increased investment in climate-resilient infrastructure and emissions mitigation.
Localized solutions such as planting more trees, reclaiming wetlands and water bodies, painting roofs white, incentivizing rooftop gardens, placing water dispensers across the city, and allowing more people to benefit from existing cooling systems can also help provide immediate relief while we work towards long-term solutions.