Extreme weather in Asia: The Big Freeze

Ten feet of snow has fallen in Japan. Hundreds of thousands have been stranded by blizzards in China. And in India, a frost that made headlines may also prove fatal. Justin Huggler reports from Delhi
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The Independent Online

In the climate-change disaster movie The Day after Tomorrow, a snowstorm in Delhi is one of the freak weather conditions that are depicted as portents of doom. It hasn't got quite that bad in real life yet, but this week there was frost in the Indian capital for the first time in decades. Children ran into the streets in excitement at their first-ever sighting of this midwinter phenomenon.

Asia is reeling under the harshest winter for years. In China, temperatures have plunged as low as minus 43C and 100,000 people had to be evacuated when houses collapsed under the snow. A quarter of a million people have been snowed in.

Japan has suffered its heaviest ever blizzards, with drifts up to 10ft deep. The authorities have struggled to cope with the unprecedented snow, and have had to call out the army to try to clear roads and roofs.

In Kashmir, the famous Dal Lake, where tourists stay in elegant houseboats in the summer months, has frozen over for the first time in 10 years.

Weather forecasters are warnings of heavy snowfalls and possible avalanches in the areas of Kashmir and Pakistan affected by last year's earthquake, where hundreds of thousands of people are living with nothing but flimsy tents to protect them.

Compared to all that, Delhi may seem to be making an unnecessary fuss. It may be the lowest temperature in Delhi for 70 years - and the second lowest ever recorded - but it has only dipped below zero by the narrowest of margins: minus 0.2C. From a British point of view, it might seem odd that the government ordered all the city's primary schools to be closed for three days to protect children from the cold, and advised people living in some areas of the city not to venture outdoors. Indeed, one man told the Indian newspapers he was amazed to discover it was possible to go outside in such low temperatures.

But for India's hundreds of thousands of homeless, the danger is very real. Every year, theydie of the cold in Delhi and other cities across north India. And most years, it does not get anywhere near as cold as it has this year. Om Prakash will see friends die this winter. He spends his nights huddled with 20 other men around a fire on a stretch of scrubby land beside a suburban road in Delhi. The men do not possess any blankets. All they have to cover themselves are black plastic bin bags which they use to keep off the rain.

"I've seen people die of the cold," says Om Prakash. "I've seen people so desperate that they take some of their clothes off and burn them on the fire to try to keep warm."

People have been dying of the cold right across Asia: at least 70 in Japan, and at least 47 in Pakistan, where in the north temperatures have dropped to around minus 25C. India has not seen such extreme conditions.

One of the highest death tolls has been in India's Uttar Pradesh state, where at least 102 people have died but temperatures have not dropped any lower than minus 1C. In Bangladesh, at least 40 people have died, although temperatures have not even dipped to freezing.

Most South Asians are simply unable to cope with even these comparatively mild temperatures. They do not possess blankets or warm clothes. Their bodies are inured to withstand the searing heat of summer, not the cold. In Delhi in June, the temperature regularly reaches 48C and often does not dip below 40C, even at night. In Nepal, 11 people have died of the cold - not in the high Himalayas, where the sherpas are hardened to cope with the savage winters, but in the low plains to the south that border India, where the temperature is only hovering around freezing.

In this part of the world, even those with a roof over their heads rarely have heating. But for the homeless, the situation is even worse. Take a walk around Delhi after dark, and you will see them everywhere. Unusually quiet at this time of year because most people have fled home out of the cold, the streets are lit by the fires of the homeless as they huddle close together for warmth on every pavement, on every patch of wasteground.

"I've been on the streets seven years, and in that time, I've seen 500 people die from the cold," says Suman, a middle-aged woman sleeping rough. "I've taken so many people to hospital, but we couldn't save them, they get sick very quickly. And there are no proper facilities for them in the hospitals because homless people are dirty and we don't have ID cards."

There are no reliable official figures, although the charity Action Aid estimates there may be as many as 400,000 homeless people in Delhi alone. But unlike most homeless people in the West, Om Prakash and his friends are not unemployed. By day, Om Prakash drives a cycle-rickshaw around the streets of Old Delhi. The cycle-rickshaws are much beloved of Western backpackers, who cling on precariously as the rickshaw swerves perilously around a blind corner. They have been imitated in London as a model of green transport.

Few of the backpackers realise, as they haggle over a few rupees, that the vast majority of the rickshaw-pullers, as they are known, cannot go home to bed at the end of their hard day. They simply do not make enough money to afford a home.

A few metres from the fire where Om Prakash is sleeping, his and his friends' rickshaws stand in a group, casting odd shadows in the flickering firelight. Beyond them, stray dogs hang around, hoping for a scrap.

Most of the homeless, like Om Prakash, came to Delhi from the provinces to try to earn a living. Om Prakash has a wife and children in his native Bihar. He sends them almost every penny he earns. He makes around £1 a day.

With the cold closing in, volunteer workers from Action Aid are desperately trying to get the homeless off the streets and into night shelters. Their first priority is the children. Thousands of Delhi's homeless are orphans or children who have been separated from their parents and live on the streets alone. In the cold, they are the most vulnerable.

The charity has persuaded several schools to open up their classrooms at night as shelters for the children. At a school near the Delhi railway station, where the street children sell newspapers and magazines, or beg by day, 115 children are sleeping crammed into three classrooms. It is not luxurious, but it is warm, and there is a roof over their heads. It is also the only time most of the children have access to washing facilities.

Action Aid has persuaded various organisations whose buildings are empty overnight to loan as shelters for adults, too. Behind anonymous doors in the warren-like streets of Paharganj - Delhi's red-light district and home to the cheapest back-packer hotels - lie the shelters that will save lives this winter.

Like the children, the men are crammed in, but they are all happy to be here. In one room they are sleeping, in another, others are sitting up watching a Bollywood movie on a broken old television whose picture jumps and flickers.

Outside, the night fog is descending. In a few hours, the frost may be forming again. For Om Prakash and the hundreds of thousands still on the streets, it will be a long night.