My friend harmattan
The prevailing harmattan wind enveloping Nigeria’s airspace is a usual weather phenomenon experienced at this time of the year. There is nothing unusual about it. If anything, the harmattan arrived a bit late, coming in late December instead of mid-November. Harmattan is my friendly weather I crave for every year. Welcome, my friend harmattan.
Social media bloggers complained beforehand that the harmattan was not coming. Some wondered whether the economic recession has gone to the extent of taking the harmattan. Give us our harmattan was the buzzing hash tag on social media before the winds finally dawned on us with its usual dry and dusty weather condition.
As usual the dust haze enveloped the entire country’s skyline with a thick blanket of fine dust. As a seasonal weather condition, harmattan usually begins from mid-November and attains a peak in mid-January but wanes by mid-February. The weather impacts on the social and economic life in the country. Humans and vegetation feel the immediate impact of harmattan.
This year’s harmattan dawned in the Lagos areas on Christmas eve, just as people were preparing to travel. Those that booked flights had it rough as several flights were delayed or cancelled outright. As a matter of fact, the harmattan compounded the problem of many airlines that were grappling with aviation fuel scarcity. Some incidents of altercation occurred at the airports between passengers and airline personnel.
Weather forecasts indicate that the prevailing air borne dust particles is likely to persist for more days ahead. Although, some experts have attributed the weather to climate change, which to me is actually far from it, if the harmattan is in any way affected by climate change, then it is likely that a certain extreme weather condition may prevail January and may extend into February. But that is not yet the case. The harmattan is waning in a rather imperceptible manner, which is why airlines are operating without much delays or cancellations.
Earlier, the Nigerian Meteorological Agency (NIMET) warned airlines, air travellers, motorists and indeed the general public “to be conscious of the prevailing atmospheric dust haze sweeping across the country.” So far, no serious mishap has occurred, except some early morning road crashes in a few places caused by poor visibility and recklessness on the part of the drivers.
It is good that NIMET issued the early and timely warning because every year, Nigerians are caught unawares without preparation for the harmattan. The impact of harmattan is felt by transport operators, airlines and indeed the general public. Many people don’t appreciate the import of the weather and adopt a business as usual attitude. It is such people that often endanger their lives and that of others, particularly, transporters. That is why caution should be exercised.
Harmattan is a dry and dusty north-east trade wind that originates from the Sahara Desert. The direction of the wind follows a seasonal shift in atmospheric high pressure to the north. The December 23rd solstice coincides with the northern winter. As a result, the entire northern hemisphere is plunged into cold winter condition. The northeast trade wind carries dust from the Sahara Desert towards the entire West Africa sub-region. Harmattan, therefore, is not peculiar to Nigeria alone. In Ghana, for example, harmattan means “tears your breath apart.”
Harmattan is characterised by chilly condition, poor visibility, low temperatures, diffused radiation and low relative humidity. All these physical characteristics affect public health as well as socio-economic activities. Ordinarily, many people tend to like harmattan because of its cool weather condition, which is a break from hot weather.
The cool weather makes people lethargic. Harmattan dust particles aggravate respiratory tract infections, eye irritations, pneumonia, catarrh, cough and other ailments. The skin is dry and lips crack. Asthmatic patients, in particular, are prone to suffer during harmattan. Such people are advised to remain indoors and reduce outdoor exposure. The chill, coupled with the longer nights induces longer hours of sleep. Sweating and heat rashes that afflict many from scorching heat disappear during harmattan.
One major characteristic of harmattan is the prevalence of dust particles. Right on furniture, cars, rooftops, windowpanes and net, a thin film of fine dust settles. Virtually every exposed surface is made untidy.
Then, there is the horizontal poor visibility, especially in the early morning hours which creates problem for aviation. Reckless driving at this time is most dangerous and the problem is compounded by the poor condition of our highways. Drivers are advised to put on their headlamp, if need be, to be on the safe side.
For the aviation sector, poor visibility is a critical hazard. A horizontal visibility below 1000 meters affects aircraft operation. That would lead to flights cancellations, sometimes at the last minute, which inconveniences of air travellers. In extreme cases, a horizontal visibility of 600 meters, which is the minimal that grounds air travel.
Unfortunately, the Nigerian aviation has not yet overcome the harmattan, even when it occurs annually. The right equipment is not installed at our airports. This is unlike what happens in the Western world where technological advancement has enabled aircraft to operate during winter. The Nigerian aviation needs to rise to the challenge by installing necessary navigational aids for uninterrupted aircraft operation even at the peak of harmattan.
The harmattan has some positive sides. For example, a severe harmattan season is a precursor to good agricultural activities and rich harvest. Fruit trees like mangoes, avocado, guava, among others blossom with flowers and fruiting. A severe harmattan heralds good harvest. Traditionally, farmers use the period to clear farms and get them ready for planting.
As a matter of fact, there should be no cause for alarm during harmattan, except that people don’t get prepared for it. Surprisingly, every year, people face harmattan unprepared. Mass poverty is at the root of the poor attitude.
Unlike in the developed world where weather events are predicted and members of the public have the right information. Here, on the other hand, the public is left in the dark. This is so because the NIMET, which is supposed to provide necessary information, is handicapped and ill equipped. NIMET should be made to function to full capacity to enable it carrying out its duties effectively.