Can new Bangladesh chief heat officer bring relief to Dhaka?

People take rest under a shed during a countrywide heat wave amid power cuts in Dhaka, Bangladesh, June 6, 2023.REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain

People take rest under a shed during a countrywide heat wave amid power cuts in Dhaka, Bangladesh, June 6, 2023.REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain

  • Dhaka gets a chief heat officer to take on rising risks
  • Urban poor, women and children are especially vulnerable
  • Indian experience shows funds and coordination key

DHAKA - Battling record temperatures fuelled by climate change, a new heat officer for Bangladesh's capital is tasked with bringing relief to the city of 10 million people - and hopes to restore the lost lakes and trees of her childhood to cool off residents.

The temperature in Dhaka hit 40.6 Celsius (105 Fahrenheit) in April, the highest in decades, leading to the deaths of at least 20 people, local media reported, and an increase in hospitalisations due to waterborne diseases. 

Scientists say global warming has made such heatwaves at least 30 times more likely for Bangladesh and India. And worldwide, last month was the hottest June on record, the EU's Copernicus Climate Change Service said.

In Dhaka, the actual impact of this year's heatwave was probably much more serious than reported.

Imran Hosen, a climate change researcher at the University of New South Wales in Australia, said the known death toll may be an under-estimate due to the absence of proper data on hospitalisations and deaths caused by extreme heat.

The local authority running the north of the capital has appointed former social welfare executive Bushra Afreen as heat officer to coordinate the city's efforts to manage the impact of rising temperatures, particularly on the poor and most disadvantaged.

The position, the first in Asia, is supported by the U.S.-based Arsht-Rockefeller Climate Resilience Center (Arsht-Rock), which has also created similar positions across the globe in cities from Miami to Athens.

"The Dhaka from my childhood looked and felt very different," Afreen told Context. "The city was not as built up - and there were a lot of ponds and lakes, and so many trees everywhere."

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Heat hits the poorest hardest   

Critics have questioned the appointment of 29-year-old Afreen, the daughter of the mayor of north Dhaka, saying she lacked the experience or expertise for such a key post.

Afreen previously worked as a social welfare executive in a garment business owned by her father and for a charitable foundation run by her aunt. Afreen said her family connections should not disqualify her for the job.

"I have been working in both the public and private sector in Bangladesh, which allowed me a diverse range of experiences and insights on the multi-faceted effects of climate change," she said.

Since her appointment two months ago, Afreen has been meeting with government departments, development organisations and environmental groups to draw up a plan of action.

Afreen said she will focus on poorer Dhaka neighbourhoods such as Kalachanpur, where most people cannot afford cooling measures such as air conditioners.

Experts and community workers said heatwaves had an uneven impact, with the urban poor working outside, mothers with infants, the elderly and children suffering the most.

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Saima Bithi, 26, a Bangladesh Red Crescent volunteer working to raise awareness of heat-related risks, said the densely packed tin-shed houses where the poor live get unbearably hot and are made worse by power outages as people cannot run fans.

The lack of access to clean drinking water and affordable healthcare only compounds the health risks, she said.

Afreen said the city authority had already set up 100 water booths where people can get water. She is working to create a map to let people know where to turn for water when temperatures rise, she said.

Her plans also include setting up cooling zones with water, good ventilation and shaded seating areas.

Besides protecting people when the temperature soars, planning experts are calling for longer-term measures to cool cities.

A recent study by the Bangladesh Institute of Planners said the rapid loss of green spaces such as parks, as well as ponds, canals and rivers in Dhaka, trapped the heat in built-up areas. It said 7% of the city is green space and less than 3% water.

S.M. Mehedi Ahsan, the general secretary of the institute, said city authorities should consider parks and bodies of water vital infrastructure that cool cities and keep them habitable.

The city authority in the southern half of Dhaka, however, this year felled hundreds of trees to widen a road, despite protests by environmental activists.

In northern Dhaka, the authority has announced plans to plant trees and create parks, and approved a tax incentive for those who set up gardens on their rooftops.

Afreen said creating green belts and urban forests would help develop 'cool zones' in the city.

People collect drinking water from a roadside tap during a countrywide heatwave, in Dhaka, Bangladesh, June 6, 2023.REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain

People collect drinking water from a roadside tap during a countrywide heatwave, in Dhaka, Bangladesh, June 6, 2023.REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain

People collect drinking water from a roadside tap during a countrywide heatwave, in Dhaka, Bangladesh, June 6, 2023.REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain

Joined-up plan

Neighbouring India has seen more than 50 heat action plans adopted by cities, districts and states.

Aditya Valiathan Pillai, a fellow at the Delhi-based think tank, the Centre for Policy Research, said heat action plans required multiple government departments to work in tandem with civil society and academia - and an official tasked with pulling together such efforts with the power to get things done.

"That requires coordinating officials to be placed sufficiently high up in the bureaucratic food chain, with enough authority to oversee implementation," Pillai said.

There are a number of groups working on the ground in Bangladesh seeking to allay the heat risks.

ICLEI, an international non-governmental organisation promoting sustainable development, is working to prepare climate change action plans for Dhaka's two city corporations, said Jubayer Rashid, its Bangladesh representative.

Meanwhile, the Bangladesh Red Crescent Society together with the German and Danish Red Cross, is working with urban working-class people to find better ways to cope with the heat.

M.A. Halim, director of climate change and disaster risk management at the Bangladesh Red Crescent, said it would also provide healthcare and cash grants for vulnerable families who miss out on income due to heat and cannot afford hospital bills. 

Such agencies could complement government efforts by producing the granular data that is needed to understand which people are the most vulnerable and how best to address their needs, Pillai said.

Afreen said her priority was to enable organisations working on urban planning to talk and work together to forge solutions.

The end goal, said the new heat chief, is that "the interventions are inclusive and sustainable, and help the people that need them the most".

(Reporting by Md. Tahmid Zami. Editing by Jon Hemming and Alister Doyle.)

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