By Tayo Ogunbiyi
The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language attempts a linkage between the word ‘harmattan’ and the Arabic word: HARAM, which literally means evil. This may not be unrelated with the unfavorable outcome of weather during this period. The harmattan season, in Nigeria, is a period between early November and mid-March when the people experience hot, dry wind that blows from the northeast or east in the Western Sahara. It is generally associated with large amounts of dust, which usually impedes air, road and water transportation. The effect caused by the dust and sand stirred by these winds is known as the Harmattan haze, and it sometimes costs airlines quite a fortune in cancelled and diverted flights annually.
One common feature of the season in the country is that it is often characterized with some dreadful diseases. For instance, it is not the best of time for asthma patients. It aggravates cold as well as causes catarrh. Also, the throat gets sore; sneezing is frequent while sometimes the eyes become wet or ruddy. The harmattan also comes with frequent headaches, sputum in the saliva because of catarrh and over time, cough. The dry, cold and dusty wind associated with harmattan also triggers sickle cell crises in affected individuals.
The skin, the eyes and the respiratory tract which directly connect with the atmosphere, the later via the nose and mouth, are most susceptible to the unpleasant effects of the season. The skin is generally dry with associated cracking of the lips, sole of the feet and even the skin itself. The body extremities such as the hands and feet are sometimes too cold to produce distasteful signs. Babies and the elderly are principally prone to hypothermia (core body temperature below 35 degrees centigrade) due to sub optimal temperature regulating mechanism.
Not only does the harmattan bring about health hazards, it also brings with it very dry winds that are capable of inflaming untended embers into raging fires that can effortlessly get out of control causing destruction of lives and property. Hence, fire outbreaks are one of the general risks during harmattan. Between November and March, quite a lot of fire outbreaks are often recorded since there is dry wind, which makes it easy for fire to spread at the slightest ignition. A shoddy management of fire during this period can cause damage of unimaginable proportion since fire spreads quickly because the environment is full of excessive heat.
In the wholly agrarian communities of the hinterland, farmers prepare for the next farming season during this period by burning bushes in preparation for cultivation. Unfortunately, this act of bush burning often result in severe losses to farmers as they repeatedly find it difficult to curtail the rage of the fire which, aided by the harmattan haze, usually extend beyond imagination. Many rural communities have lost hitherto buoyant and prosperous farmlands to the rage of uncontrollable harmattan fire, thereby subjecting the natives, whose mainstay of income is farming, to avoidable pains and anguish. In some instances, some have committed suicide as a result of monumental damage caused to their farmlands by irrepressible harmattan fire.
One other source of harmattan fire is petrol kept at homes, offices and such other unusual places during this season. In view of the preponderance style of government, over the years, to hike the price of petroleum products at the end or beginning of each year, the citizens often engage in panic buying and storage of petrol in odd places during this period. Research has indicated that we experience the most destructive fire outbreaks during this period and mostly due to wrong storage of petroleum products.
As stated earlier, the harmattan season equally takes its toll on transportation. Be it by air, road or on water, travelling could be very hazardous during this season. The change in weather condition during this period usually occurs when the temperature drops to the dew point of saturated air that condenses to reduce visibility drastically and cut down on the vision of a driver to 400 meters or less thus creating dangerous driving conditions. Many lives have been lost, in the past, to this precarious harmattan condition as drivers, either out of ignorance or sheer disregard to the changing weather condition, easily fall victim. It is, therefore, important for motorists to drive with lights on low beam in view of reflections from high beams that heighten poor visibility during this period.
To effectively curtail the evil effects of the harmattan season, everybody must be ready to play by the rules. Since there will be severe cold mixed with dust, people with asthmatic conditions and any sort of inhalant allergies need to take precautions. This is the period when the asthmatic suffers more crises. Many also suffer pneumonia and bronchitis, especially the very young and the aged. Those that are allergic to cold should also endeavour to go for thick clothing that can cover them up. The skin can be kept healthy through regular use of appropriate jelly products.
It is also advisable that people improve on their hygienic pattern during this period. It is, for instance, unhealthy for people to patronize all manner of food hawkers throughout the season. Fruits, vegetables and other such items must be thoroughly washed before eating to prevent food borne diseases. Similarly, it is also advisable that people take lots of fluids to make for loss of water from the body.
One would, also, like to appeal to the public to be sensitized by the several on-going campaigns on how to prevent harmattan fire outbreaks and other related disasters. It is because members of the public do not heed the advice given by relevant government agencies and other stakeholders that they often fall victims of harmattan related tragedies. In same vein, all community leaders should be involved in enlightening the people, on the danger of engaging in acts that could result in fire disasters during harmattan season, and indeed other periods. Perhaps, more importantly, it is essential for all disaster and emergency management agencies, across the country, to draw up a scientific contingency plan to effectively combat fire outbreaks and other harmattan connected disasters. Strategies to lessen susceptibility should be entrenched in vulnerability assessment and better perception of all options that are available to reduce the exposure of the people to the evil effects of the harmattan season.
Since every season comes with its own challenges, it is, therefore, the collective responsibility of everyone, not only to adapt to changing environment conditions, but also to adopt individual and joint strategies to confront all challenges associated with the harmattan season.
•Ogunbiyi is of the Features Unit, Ministry of Information and Strategy, Alausa, Ikeja