As the New Year begins, the foggy weather, sweeping wind and blurring dust that accompany the harmattan season have intensified. The Nigeria Meteorological Agency (NiMet) has predicted many cases of flight disruptions through cancellation and delay of flights at some airports. The agency alerted Nigerians to the fact that with the harmattan season, “sunny and hazy conditions are expected over the Northern states and central cities down to the inland cities of the southern parts, with thick dust haze conditions which can impair horizontal visibility to less than 1000m (1km).”
Nimet added that “dryness is anticipated due to expected reduction in humidity and cloud cover. Surface winds are also expected to be stronger especially over the northern parts. Bush burning should be avoided as the dryness and strong wind can increase fire incidents and cause severe crop damage at harvesting period.” The weather agency went further to mention some of the health challenges that would arrive with the season, saying that the dust haze would further contribute to deterioration of air quality and “can trigger asthma and bronchitis attacks as well as cause cold, cough, catarrh, and even meningitis.”
The prediction by Nimet should be taken seriously as bush burning has led to the devastation of not only crops but also of communities. In Nigeria, farmers see the dry season as an opportunity to clear thick bushes in preparation for the next farming season, while hunters see the season as an opportunity to hunt for bush meat. But over the years, these opportunities have led to disasters that cost the people many lives and the destruction of property worth millions of Naira.
Also, the harmattan season increases the danger of air mishaps. For instance, in January 1973, Nigeria recorded one of its worst air disasters as 176 persons died in a Boeing 707 Jordanian Airways flight from Jedda that crashed at Kano airport as a result of bad weather caused by harmattan. Also, in October 2005, bad weather led to the crash of Boeing 737 operated by Bellview Airline in Lagos, leading to 117 deaths. The Abuja-bound flight lost contact with the Control Tower about three minutes after take-off from Lagos airport and crashed about 30 kilometres away from the Lagos airport.
In December 2005, another air disaster, involving McDonnell-Douglas operated by Sosoliso Airlines, occurred at the Port Harcourt airport, killing 108 persons, most of them young students of Loyola Jesuit College in Abuja. The investigation conducted into the mishap showed that it was caused by bad weather during the harmattan season. Also, 97 people perished in a Boeing 737 operated by ADC Airlines when it crashed near the Abuja airport shortly after takeoff in October 2006. The disaster was caused by low level wind shear but the immediate cause was the pilot’s refusal to acknowledge prevailing weather conditions.
These and more such incidents point to the fact that ignoring weather reports during harmattan could portend great danger to lives and property. Beyond air crashes, it is important for Nigerians to adopt measures that would protect them from the health challenges that come with the harmattan, usually from November to March. For instance, those with asthmatic conditions should protect themselves from dusty wind; and those who live in communities where the temperature drops considerably should learn to put on protective gear. Also, it is important for Nigerians to imbibe the insurance culture by ensuring that their houses are properly insured against fire and associated natural disasters. Losses become severe when properties are not protected with insurance covers.
Harmattan is an annual season that cannot be stopped any more than humans can stop the onset of rains, winter, autumn or summer. However, since the negative effects associated with it are well known, what we should do is to put in place safety measures with respect to transportation as well as measures with respect to health. That way, its negative features can be curtailed.