Cold: A silent killer in Egypt

Yesterday’s hailstorm and rainstorm across Egypt brought a reminder that the harsh winter isn’t over yet.*

The excitement over the “snow” in December and the exasperation over rain-induced traffic chaos faded fast. Yet this winter brought death repeatedly in St Catherine and also in Cairo. The handful of cases we know about are merely the tip of an iceberg, with thousands likely killed by cold weather. It was easy to miss how low temperatures ripped through people’s lives. We can ignore it because cold is a classist killer, cutting through poor communities first. Climate change might seem a distant matter for those shopping at Citystars or dining in the Nile Towers. But for millions living in this city, it is already invading their lives.

Mohamed Bahnas’ tragic death in December is one of the few that received public attention. A well-travelled Sudanese artist and writer, Bahnas was forced onto the streets after several years in Cairo without valid papers or a source of income. A friend of his told us that he often struggled to collect a couple of pounds for food, and had neither shelter nor warm clothing. Bahnas was found dead at his usual spot at Opera Square on December 18, during one of the cruellest cold waves Cairo experienced in decades.

We don’t know how many people have been killed by the cold in Egypt. The statistics don’t exist, especially as many who died were living on the streets like Bahnas, or drawn from Egypt’s underclass.

We do know that in Britain, there were 33,000 excess winter deaths in 2012-2013. Seven thousand alone died from fuel poverty, forced to choose between eating and heating their homes. But how is this relevant to Egypt?

There’s a common misperception that people dying from the cold is mostly a problem in northern countries, and insignificant in regions with mild winter temperatures. Yet in reality, Finland has the lowest increase in mortality rates during winter in Europe. Meanwhile, warmer Portugal (28 percent) and Spain (21 percent) are hardest hit. Paradoxically, it turns out that far more people die in places with milder winter climates, where one would expect less potential for cold strain and cold related mortality.

Research indicates that structural social factors carry the greatest responsibility for deaths from cold. More people die in places where public resources aren’t allocated to housing or to the health system. In other words, the cold doesn’t kill you unless you live in cheap and badly insulated housing, and you can’t access appropriate healthcare. It’s simply a question of social adaptation and many warm countries haven’t managed to adapt to cold weather, so they suffer the most. Winter deaths are preventable, and are partly the outcome of decisions made by politicians.

With such high figures for Europe, how many die needlessly in Egypt every winter?

Given that Egypt enjoys hot weather most of the year, Egyptian homes have minimal insulation. Heating is inefficient and millions of people can’t afford adequate energy to warm their homes. This situation is made worse by the fact that millions of Egyptians suffer from malnutrition and lack of access to adequate healthcare. The public health system is poorly funded and under strain.

Despite the calamity, the statistics simply do not exist, as most research has focused on colder countries. But a study in Guangzhou, China, showed a 26 percent increase in the death rate during winter months. Average temperatures in Guangzhou from November to March are within one degree difference of Cairo. If Cairo’s figures were in fact similar to that of Guangzhou, that would translate to around 30,000 winter deaths just in the Greater Cairo area.

Maybe it’s tempting to think that people could adapt to the cold if someone educates them on winter safety.  But the reality is that in Egypt some people have adapted, without a second thought — the rich and the privileged. They have houses to which they can retreat; they can afford energy and heating appliances; they have access to good private healthcare. They don’t die from the cold. Meanwhile those who do can’t afford to keep themselves and their homes warm.

As climate change intensifies in Egypt, temperatures are becoming more extreme; winters are colder, and summers hotter. We see the effect of climate change manifesting itself as saltwater intrusion into the Delta farmland, dissolving coral reefs, shifting fishing seasons, rising groundwater and sea levels along the coastal areas, erratic Nile flow and hotter seasons in Upper Egypt. 

This is, however, not nature “taking its revenge” on us, but class-based violence. We don’t recognise it as such, as the underlying violence is rendered invisible, diverting responsibility to “natural” disasters, “climate cycles” and the weather.

Climate change hurts the poor the most and although some climate-related disasters enter public consciousness easily, such as hurricanes, floods, and droughts, the creeping silent cold is neither appealing in photographs, nor considered newsworthy; hence we don’t notice its victims.

Nobody needed to die when the temperature dropped this winter. It’s easy for the thousands of unnecessary deaths to go unseen. Most people don’t literally freeze to death. Instead, the increased exposure means people are far more likely to die from chronic diseases — especially heart and respiratory diseases. Those killed tend to be people who were already made vulnerable by economic exploitation and political disenfranchisement.

These deaths were the result of policies, practices and decisions made in Lazoghly, Heliopolis and Qattamiya, and further away in London, Brussels, Washington DC and Qatar. These are choices to keep burning fossil fuels, and perpetuate the fossil-fuel based economy for the benefit of the rich and powerful.

The coming decades will fundamentally change Egypt. Higher cold-related deaths are only one mounting symptom. On the other end of the extreme weather spectrum, intense heat and drought will lead to savage hunger as crops are ruined and livestock die. Climate change means disease will creep, as water- and insect-borne pathogens spread from the tropics, reaching millions never exposed to them before. Coastal mega cities like Alexandria will face inundation. Even when drought or floods occur abroad, urban populations that rely on imported staple foods like wheat and rice are exposed to volatile prices and are thus unable to feed themselves. Rising temperatures and heat stress also kill people, especially amongst rural workers who can’t avoid heavy labour and outdoor work.

Such disasters kill many poor people, and few rich people. Rural farmers and urban working classes have less access to the resources that enable survival, including safe housing, clean water, and mobility. Climate change is one long disaster, which the rich and powerful are both causing and profiting from, through carbon trading, land grabs and engineering mega projects that prioritise their interests. While some Egyptians will die of cold in Cairo’s streets and others will lose their fields to the encroaching sea, the elite will continue to increase their land holdings from the comfort of their gated communities.

Collating statistics is an important first step to working out how people are affected by the increased cold Cairo and other Egyptian cities are experiencing. But we know that climate change will fundamentally transform Egypt over the next generation. We therefore need to come up with adaptation proposals that are grounded in justice and not limited to disaster relief and charity work; proposals that change the economic and social structures that make the poor vulnerable in the first place.

*This article has been updated in light of the stormy weather that hit Egypt yesterday. 

Mika Minio-Paluello 

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