Why Dhaka's heat officer is on a mission to cool scorching cities

Bushra Afreen said every urban area needs to tackle the silent killer of rising temperatures

Bushra Afreen, chief heat officer for Dhaka North, said women and children are disproportionately affected. Antonie Robertson / The National
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Every global city must tackle the silent killer that is extreme heat, Bushra Afreen, Asia's first "chief heat officer", has warned.

Ms Afreen - appointed last year to address the heat crisis in Bangladesh's capital Dhaka - said extreme temperatures affects “every single layer” of a city from buildings to traffic to wastewater.

Speaking at the Sustainable Cities in Action Forum at Expo City Dubai on Monday, she cautioned that soaring heat is hitting the most vulnerable hardest.

“Every single thing that goes into making a city is going to be worsened by heat if you don't manage it,” Ms Afreen told The National.

“The work that we as chief heat officers do is so incredibly important because ultimately this is to benefit public health, especially the health of the most vulnerable.”

Heat is a silent killer and it will kill you first
Bushra Afreen, chief heat officer for Dhaka North

More than 160,000 people died due to heatwaves globally from 1998 to 2017, according to the World Health Organisation.

And scientists believe it is getting worse because of climate change, with Ms Afreen's home city of Dhaka severely affected.

Last year, temperatures in Dhaka passed 40ºC leading to power cuts, hospital admissions and deaths.

Scientists said that global warming made the searing heat that spread across Asia, including Bangladesh, at least 30 times more likely.

"Nobody knew what to do," Ms Afreen said.

"People were still out in the middle of the day shopping right underneath the hot sun for hours with children on their shoulders.

"[Staying out in the sun] is something ... culturally and socially seen as making you more resilient - but it's not the case any more.

"It will kill you."

The greater Dhaka area is home to about 23 million people and rising. Many live in slums in houses built with tin that can turn into an oven during the day.

Many also cannot afford air conditioning. Ms Afreen paints a picture of a stressed city struggling to cope, with women and children disproportionately affected.

Compounding this is a lack of education and awareness about the dangers of extreme heat.

“In most traditional families, a woman will cook, clean the house ... do a lot of the manual labour and put herself in front of a heat source like a fire or a stove,” she said, referring to Bangladesh.

“If the power goes out, they will spend their entire night fanning her husband or her child and then wake up the next morning or not even sleep, and then repeat the entire day again.

"When you don't get a respite from the heat, when you're not able to cool down and rest, you're making yourself weaker and weaker. So that's why we say that heat affects women the most."

Ms Afreen, in her 30s, was appointed last year as officer for Dhaka North, where her father is mayor, as part of an initiative organised by the Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Centre.

It assists communities that are dealing with climate extremes, through a network of finance, health and climate experts.

She joins an all-female network of heat officers in cities around the world, including Miami, Chile's capital Santiago, and Freetown in Sierra Leone. But cities outside this initiative are also appointing heat officers.

Ms Afreen – who previously worked to reduce heat for workers on the production floors of her family's garment business and co-produced a film that indirectly reflected on climate change – is trying to reduce the impact of heat for its residents.

But it is a tough task amid the surging population, density of buildings that worsen the heat-island effect – when a city experiences much warmer temperatures than nearby rural areas – and lack of green spaces.

Among the projects in which Ms Afreen has been involved is helping to increase the amount of greenery, particularly in what are known as "informal settlements" or slums.

Battling red tape and delays, the project led to more than 5,000 trees being planted in these areas using local knowledge to determine where they should be planted and who takes care of them.

Other initiatives include: creating urban forests; integrating heat factors into the city's smartphone app, such as showing people where water sources are; and building "cooling zones" around the city on street corners or empty spaces.

“We're working on transforming those spaces into women and child-friendly, safe, green, healthy spaces with water access and heat messaging. And we will put them on a map," she said.

Ms Afreen is also keen to develop an early heatwave warning system in collaboration with the Bangladeshi weather bureau, Department of Disaster Management and the Health Ministry.

She said cities need more heat officers and more people working on the effect heatwaves have on human health.

“[Many people] live in metal housing … and that really makes their houses behave like furnaces," said Ms Afreen.

She said a solution such as covering the tops in reflective paint has consequences.

“These are unregulated houses,” she said, “So the landlords, the second you do that, they're just going to hike up the price. So it is very challenging.”

Regionally, she pointed to Palestine, stating on top of the current situation, when it gets warmer “so many people [will be vulnerable]” and said more people in the field were needed across the Middle East.

“We need to make sure that we address heat as the top challenge to deal with. Heat is a silent killer and it will kill you first," Ms Afreen said.

She said reaction to her role – she is still Asia's only heat officer – was sceptical at the start and while things were changing, a lot more needed to be done.

"We have only scratched the surface," she said. "We need to go back to our cities and our communities and work from the ground up.”

The Sustainable Cities in Action Forum runs until March 6 and aims to share innovations and solutions on urban development across the Middle East, Africa and South Asia

Updated: March 06, 2024, 9:53 AM