Temperature extremes resulting from climate change have led to serious concerns about the impact on human health − but warnings have come too late for many Nepali migrants who have died working in Gulf states.
LONDON/KATHMANDU, 27 June, 2014 − Sabin is a 22-year-old from a small town in eastern Nepal, in the foothills of the Himalayas. But he isn’t living there now. To support his family, he’s been working as a truck driver in Qatar for the last five years.
“When I arrived in Qatar I could not believe the heat,” he says. “I never knew such extreme temperatures in my home place. Without AC (air conditioning) in my truck, I wouldn’t be able to survive. I would simply die.”
Sabin is part of an estimated 400,000-strong contingent of Nepalis now working in the small Gulf state − and he is one of the lucky ones. A substantial number of his fellow workers have died because of the conditions they have to work and live in – and the searing heat is thought to be a major factor in the high mortality rate.
Construction workers in Qatar, where summertime temperatures can reach 45˚C or more, are particularly vulnerable to heat exposure.
Dipesh has worked on various projects in Qatar. He has seen fellow Nepali workers − most of whom come from villages high up in the Himalayas, where they are used to a cool climate − wilt in the heat and then, ironically, die as a result of the cold in air conditioned rooms.
“Especially for those working in the construction sector, the AC is like a killer machine,” Dipesh says. “They are exposed to extreme temperatures outside, then when they get breaks in the day, they fall asleep in the artificially-cooled rooms. Some of them never wake up – they die in their sleep.”
Qataris have the highest income per capita in the world, but only 6% of the 2 million people in the country are citizens. The rest are immigrants − the majority coming from Asia.
While exact statistics are hard to come by, because workers who speak out fear repercussions, it is believed that at least 60 Nepalis − most of them working in the construction industry − have died in Qatar this year alone. In the majority of cases, the cause of death was officially given as heart disease. But many of the Nepalis believe that most of the deaths were caused by heat stroke.
The human body is designed to maintain a core temperature of 37˚C. Health specialists say that the physical impact of heat is often neglected, and should be considered in discussions about climate change.
A multi-centre international study programme called Hothaps (high occupational temperature: health and productivity suppression) is examining the issue, particularly in relation to increasingly high temperatures being recorded in some regions due to climate change.
“Heat transfer goes into the body and only
evaporation of sweat can reduce body heat”
“If the ambient air temperature is higher than 37˚C, heat transfer goes into the body and only evaporation of sweat can reduce body heat,” Hothaps says. “However, such evaporation is less and less effective as the humidity level goes up and, at 100% relative humidity, sweating continues but creates no body heat loss.”
Studies have shown that when the core body temperature rises above 38˚C, physical and mental capabilities diminish rapidly and there is an increased risk of accidents.
When the body temperature is above 39˚C, heat stroke occurs, while above 40.6˚C there’s the strong possibility of life-threatening “severe hyperpyrexia”, or high fever – leading to death.
Heat not only affects health but can also have a big impact on economic activity, with the productivity of workers labouring outside dropping by as much as 80% during the hottest hours of the day in summer in cities such as New Delhi.
Increased urbanisation, particularly in parts of Asia, is only adding to the problem. The “heat island effect” means that cities are often several degrees warmer than the countryside, so those in urban areas are at greater risk of heat stress.
This has considerable implications for the economic future of tropical countries, which are seeing spikes in temperatures related to climate change.
Risk of malaria
In some tropical regions, contractors are insisting that their workers make increasing use of “cool periods” – instructing them to work at dawn or dusk, or to labour through the night. One problem of this is that mosquitoes are far more active in the cooler hours, and so the risk of malaria increases.
Some workers, such as those millions involved in agriculture, have no alternative but to work in − and often through − the hottest period of the day.
In Qatar, regulations prohibit companies from making workers labour through the hottest period of the day in the summer months. Adequate worker breaks should also be provided.
But Bhim Prasad Bhandari, who worked as a tea boy in Qatar for four years before returning to his mountain village in Nepal, says: “The monthly salaries for Nepali workers are too low (less that $200), so they are often tempted to work overtime, even in the prohibited hours.
“Some companies do not want to halt their work during the day. The official work time is eight hours, but the Nepalis, who are often burdened with loans and the expectations of their families at home, carry on and work up to 14 hours a day. They live in unliveable conditions.” – Climate News Network
• Om Astha Rai is a reporter with Nepalese national newspaper, Republica Daily.
• Some of the names in this article have been changed to protect the Nepali workers.