26th April 1998
By Arshad M.Hadjirin
The Heat is the topic on every one’s lips these weeks. So severe is the current hot spell that a soldier in Maduru Oya died last week when he became dehydrated after routine exercise.
Airconditioners are being worked round the clock, there is a rush to buy new fans, sales of ice creams and soft drinks have shot up as people desperately seek relief from the heat. The humble thambili has been selling at Rs. 20 for several weeks now. And this is not a desert. This is supposed to be the Paradise isle. “I’ve no option but to work under the scorching sun,” said Somapala Hettige, a labourer whose job is to tar the road. “Never felt so hot!” he said, despairingly.
The severity of the situation could be felt by anybody, regardless of what time of day it is. Temperatures have risen at least 4 degrees celsius from the average of previous years. High humidity levels means that sweat on the body, no longer dries up the way it would on a normal day. Global warming, the green house effect, or the latest, El-Nino are all held responsible for this extraordinary weather pattern.
Jayathilake Banda, Deputy Director, Meteorological Department, puts it more technically. “The Sun was passing directly on top of Sri Lanka between April 5-15. Now it has shifted a little Northerly. But still not quite enough to effect a change on temperatures,” he said.
“The solar heat rips through the clear cloudless skies above Sri Lanka, bringing down scorching rays,” added Banda. Also the side effects of El-Nino have increased the temperatures above normal, due to a large scale subsidence of air in our region. He said that the subsidence of air has prevented the formation of any rain clouds.
According to Banda’s estimates, most parts of the country have suffered temperature rises of 5 degrees celsius during day time, while night temperatures have risen by at least 3 degrees celsius.
Dr.Ananda Samarasekera, speaking to ‘The Sunday Times’ about this unusual heat, warns that “one could fall into deadly conditions, due to this heat.”
Explaining two possible kinds of diseases which could prevail under hot and humid conditions, Dr. Samarasekera said ; “A heat stroke, could occur when a person is over exhausted, and this can be deadly. The second type of illness is caused due to sweat not drying on the skin, and this leads to most infectious diseases,” he said.
Dr.Samarasekera said widespread viral diseases, chicken pox, measles, mumps and other epidemics could occur under these conditions, and that one ought to be extremely careful in avoiding them. “The most vulnerable group are those at the extremes; the young and the old,” he warned.
“We are already facing a severe problem, with a high incidence of viral diseases. Hospitals are unusually crowded throughout the day,” remarked Dr.Samarasekera, adding however, that people shouldn’t panic.
According to Dr.Samarasekera dusty conditions will increase the spread of diseases. “On an average day ten per cent of children are affected by viral diseases, but now it has shot up to an alarming thirty per cent,” he said. It is advised that lots of liquid be taken if one is getting dehydrated. “If suffering from a flu, the temperature shouldn’t be allowed to exceed a hundred degrees,” warned Dr. Samarasekera.
This protracted dry spell has left work on paddy fields, roads, building sites etc. extremely slack. While pavement hawkers and vegetable sellers were seen searching for shade when customers are not around, beggars, usually a common sight on city streets are hardly seen on the roads these days. Suffering commuters packed in private coaches and office workers who do not have the benefit of air conditioned environments complain bitterly of the energy-sapping heat.
Due to the prevalence of sea breeze coming into the land area during daytime, humidity levels have shot up drastically. The presence of high humidity (above 85 %) and high temperatures makes one extremely uncomfortable as the moisture doesn’t allow the sweat to dry up.
Met man Jayatilleke Banda said that the intermittent afternoon thunderstorms experienced last month did not have an impact on the overall weather condition. “The relief can only be temporary, for just a few hours. The next morning things will revert to the same,” he said.
Satellite weather maps at the Meteorological Department, last week showed high pressure cells forming over the West Coast of South India between 5000 - 18,000 feet above sea level. “This build up will cause northerly winds, suppressing afternoon thunderstorms,” Banda said. Banda said that this year’s hot temperatures started two months earlier than usual, in mid January. He predicts they would continue until the onset of the South West monsoon which is not expected till June.
The heat is well nigh unbearable, but are we also to be subjected to water cuts as in previous years? According to Assistant General Manager Water Board, W.A.Karunaratne, water levels in reservoirs, and rivers are dropping down fast. “But we will take precautions only if a drought is in the offing,” he said.
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