The coldest winter in South Asia for decades has claimed the lives of more than 1,600 people, most of them poor and homeless, in India, Bangladesh and Nepal. Red Cross and Red Crescent volunteers are providing blankets and arranging for firewood and coal to give warmth to street-dwellers.
"This has been the coldest winter in 40 years and the cold wave is showing no signs of letting up," a weather broadcaster said on Indian television on Monday evening. As India, Bangladesh and Nepal remain in the grip of a month-long cold wave, it is the poor who are faring the worst as temperatures plummet to minus one degree Celsius in some regions, such as the northern Indian state of Himachal Pradesh.
As weather officials predict there may be no relief from the bitter cold before the first week of February, residents of some cities, like Churu in Rajasthan, have had to go without water as supply pipelines burst due to the water freezing.
The Indian Red Cross has already distributed 30,000 blankets, quilts and warm clothing in the worst-affected state of Bihar. Seven thousand more woollen blankets as well as assorted used woollen clothes are also being dispatched to the branches of West Bengal, Delhi, Andhra Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh.
Meteorologists blame the harsh winter on El Nino, the weather phenomenon that disrupts the ocean-atmospheric system in the tropical Pacific with major consequences for the rest of the globe. The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration warned in July that El Nino was back, and past experience has shown that when it reaches the Indian Ocean, winters in South Asia are generally colder.
In South Asia, where winters are normally short and mild, millions live in shacks or mud-and-thatch houses without heat or electricity. As for the wealthy, the rush for electrical heaters has left some appliance stores sold out.
"The harsh winter is challenging the coping abilities of some of the most vulnerable people in the region," says Bob McKerrow, head of International Federation Regional Delegation for South Asia.
"Migrants to big cities like New Delhi and Dhaka, besides smaller and remote towns in the region, are having to live out in the open and their condition needs more attention, even though Red Cross Red Crescent volunteers are doing their best to provide relief," he added.
More than 600 people have died in Bangladesh as a result of the cold-wave since it began mid-December. News agencies have reported at least 25 deaths every day during the last fortnight. The International Federation has provided 50,000 Swiss francs (US$37,000) from its Disaster Relief Emergency Fund to the Bangladesh Red Crescent Society so that relief can be delivered the affected population immediately.
Northerly winds have aggravated the cold wave, mainly in the north and south-west of the country. The weather is causing extreme hardships to the homeless and vulnerable sections of the population, many of whom live on the streets. These include millions who lost their homes and possessions during the monsoon floods last year.
Thousands of people have approached medical centres, including those run by the Bangladesh Red Crescent Society (BDRCS), with complaints of cold, fever, pneumonia, asthma and respiratory complications.
"After experiencing the lowest-ever recorded temperatures and most prolonged cold wave since 1968 in Bangladesh, it is difficult to say if the situation will further deteriorate," says BDRCS chairman, Maj Gen Z A Khan. "Red Crescent volunteers are collecting and distributing relief to the affected population throughout the country,"
Over 60 deaths have been reported from Nepal, though there are no official figures. Most of the fatalities have been reported from the districts of Banke and Bardia in the Terai plains in the foothills of the Himalayas.
Nepal Red Cross sub branches have brought relief, mainly blankets and warm clothing, to the affected people.
But the latest worry for governments in South Asia is the longer term impact the weather could have on millions of farmers in a region where most people depend on agriculture for a living.
Mangla Rai, the Director General of the Indian Council for Agricultural Research has warned that the unusually low temperatures could affect crop yields as high humidity levels could freeze plant cells to death. Many farmers in the country's northern states have yet to recover from the impact of poor monsoon rains and the resulting drought.