24 December 2012

Nigeria: Managing Harmattan


With the onset of the inclement harmattan season, the Federal Ministry of Environment and the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) issued alerts on the hazards that are associated with the dry weather.

The warning is informed by the reported outbreak of bushfires in some parts of the country. Such fires have led to avoidable disasters in the past. Apart from the cold and dust that it brings, harmattan also comes with gusty winds that blow south from the Sahara to the Gulf of Guinea, between the end of November and the middle of March.

During this period in some West African countries, the level of dust in the air is so thick that it severely limits visibility and blocks the sun for several days, comparable to a heavy fog. In most cases, humidity drops to as low as 15 per cent Celsius. For some people, this could cause spontaneous nosebleeds. Health officials report increases in cases of conjunctivitis, asthma, and dry cough among others, during the period.

The warning is therefore timely. However, it should be sustained and expanded, especially to rural areas that are prone to wild bushfire. The period also coincides with the annual hunting season in some communities, where bushfires are likelier to start. It is important to enlighten people about the hazards of handling fire in the dry season, and to anticipate emergencies and prepare for them.

It is also important that the general public be reminded that with the harmattan here, precautionary measures need to be taken to avoid fire incidents that could have disastrous consequences. Disaster management and local authorities should enlighten the public on handling fires during the period. Community leaders should also be involved to educate particularly those living in peculiar environment, such as thatched dwellings in rural areas, to be cautious in the use of firewood or other smouldering objects such as candles, lantern and heating materials. Such fires must be put out immediately after use. It is equally not adviseable in this season to warm rooms with burning charcoals during the night.

In more urban settings, where the use of electrical appliances is common, people should exercise caution in their usage both at homes and in public places like markets or schools. These appliances should be switched off whenever they are not in use. Charging mobile phones throughout the night is also risky, because reports have shown that the practice could be a source of fire outbreak. Bush burning to clear farm site or to hunt rodents and other animals should be minimised or avoided; the same caveat applies to people in the habit of burning refuse dumps without monitoring them to ensure that sparks do not fly too far and out of control. Such activities should be minimised during the harmattan period.

The various fire services nationwide ought to be properly equipped and in a position to respond to emergencies promptly. It is inexcusable that in an environment prone to fire outbreaks, neighbourhoods do not have standard water hydrants in place, and fire services rarely have water or vehicles to facilitate their job. Planning has also been relegated, especially at the local government levels. There is need to install water hydrants at strategic areas of towns and cities to aid fire emergency response.

Apart from fires spreading more rapidly during the harmattan, the season has health implications as well, like cold and catarrh. People, particularly children and the elderly who are more vulnerable, should wear warm clothing to minimise the likelihood of contracting these communicable diseases. In the far north, where the winds are quite dusty and harsh, it is safer sometimes to wear sunglasses to protect the eyes. Health officials have stressed the importance of keeping the skin healthy through the application of moisturizers and by putting on weather friendly clothes. State ministries of health and the environment should create units to enlighten people about how to successfully cope with the dry season.

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