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Before the rainy season started in earnest, professional photographer Grace Ekpu endured night after night of intense, stifling heat in the Nigerian city of Lagos.

Air-conditioning is an unaffordable luxury for most here, so people generally rely on fans. But rolling overnight power outages mean a challenging work-life balance for many sleep-deprived citizens. They’re rarely well-rested enough to tackle a day in Nigeria’s busiest megalopolis.

Lagos is home to 22 million people and rising rapidly, with the Nigerian population as a whole predicted to double by 2050. Temperatures are increasing too: the whole country has been experiencing an intense heatwave. In the first four months of 2019 the mercury rose up to five degrees higher than average – around 35 degrees Celsius – in the humid commercial capital. It has come down a bit since the rain began in May. But according to climate change scientists, this heatwave may be a sign of what lies ahead for the West African nation.  

Early mornings are cooler most of the time, but the journey to the office at first light can be sweltering if you’re stuck in nose-to-tail traffic on the Third Mainland Bridge. It links the mainland district of Lagos with Lagos Island and, at 11.8km, was the longest bridge in Africa until 1996.

It’s a long, sweaty commute on a route that sees heavy traffic. While public corporations are based on the mainland, more multinationals, start-ups and young professionals are based on the island. It’s where resourceful millennials and Generation Z are furthering their careers in fields like finance, media, technology and law.

Most of these young workers have had to come up with their own hacks for surviving the heat. “I really wish I could permanently wear a hat with an umbrella. I see some people who wear that and I think it is genius; at least it shields them from the harsh sun,” says 28-year-old Ekpu.

“Getting to work, I have to battle a bit of traffic driving on [the bridge] to the island. It gets really hot and I have to use the AC in the car to the max, even in the heavy traffic.” Ekpu knows this means she uses more petrol – one of her biggest expenses – but the benefits outweigh the cost. “I just take lots of water with me to ease the stress from the heat,” she says, adding she’s also cut down on applying skin moisturisers to try and cope with the sweating.

Not everyone makes this torturous commute. Some people are wealthy enough to live on Lagos Island, with its beaches and maritime resorts. Residents are a mix of the super-rich and affluent workers in tech and digital media industries. High rents around other prime locations with better coastal access like Victoria Island or Lekki make the mainland the default choice for most professionals, but there’s really no place to cool off.

Chiamaka Nwanne is a 27-year-old physiotherapist who made a conscious decision to adjust her wardrobe to cope with higher temperatures in her workplace (Credit: Ayodele Johnson)

Weather-proof

Chiamaka Nwanne is a 27-year-old physiotherapist working with a medical mission in Lagos. She has made a conscious decision to adjust her wardrobe to cope with higher temperatures in her workplace. She’s opted to ditch the long hair that was making her sweaty and is picky about her clothing.

“Essentially, I tend to go wear my natural hair because it is a bit short and can easily roll it up when it gets so hot,” Nwanne explains. “I wear light clothing, short-sleeves.” She’s also installed net-screened doors at home, so air can circulate through her apartment.

Digital marketing manager Deji Dosunmu, 33, says he’s been bathing “like three times a day when I am home, and twice daily when I go out”. Dosunmu, who describes himself as on the bigger side, says he drinks a lot of water to prevent dehydration. Getting around the city, he opts to ride in vehicles “like an Uber, private car or a bus like the new Lagos Bus Rapid Transit (BRTs) with air conditioning”.

Any temporary relief from the heat tends to come with a cost. When the frequent power cuts hit – infrastructure cannot keep pace with the city’s rapid expansion – many residents rely on their own generators, pumping more emissions into the environment. Dosunmu has splashed out on extra fuel for his machine. ”I am constantly on AC and when electricity goes off, the heat in the house is basically suffocating. So buying petrol to keep the AC on has been a real challenge,” he says.

Outside, empty soft-drink bottles litter many streets, competing for space in stuffed gutters. Hot residents want more cold drinks – something that’s helped Henry, a 21-year-old salesman who did not want to give his last name. He supplies Pepsi drinks to retailers by truck. He’s one of the heatwave’s winners: between November 2018 and May 2019 he’s distributed 500-1,000 packs of soft drinks “every blessed day” – a leap compared to the 250-300 he’s delivering now since heavy June rains brought temperatures down.

Commutes are getting long and sweaty in cities like Lagos that struggle with more intense heatwaves amid climate change (Credit: Getty Images)

Out of the frying pan in to the fire

Prolonged periods of intense sweaty heat in Lagos may well become part of daily working life. This part of the continent is hot most of the year, but this is likely to worsen due to the effects of climate change. Africa, says the UN, is the continent most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, including increased drought and floods, despite not being a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions.

“The effects of climate change are already being felt. But what we see now – heat waves in Nigeria, massive forest fires in the US – is only a small taste of what is to come if human development continues on a fossil fuel-intensive path,” Stephen Gardiner, a Ben Rabinowitz Endowed Professor of the Human Dimensions of the Environment at the University of Washington.

Excessive heat affects health and productivity, and should be treated as a public health problem, a recent global study found. And the problem will likely increase – by 2050 about 350m more people living in megacities like Lagos could be exposed to deadly heat each year, even if temperature rises can be limited to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels as per the 2015 Paris agreement, a 2017 study found.

“Even if ambitious mitigation targets are met, the need to adapt to extreme heat will remain,” wrote Tom Matthews, one of the study’s authors. “The high concentration of people and heat in urban environments make cities an important focus for these adaptation efforts.”

Professional photographer Grace Ekpu says she packs water, cranks up the AC and bypasses moisturisers to avoid sweating and overheating (Credit: Faith Ilevbare)


In Nigeria, the heat wave has certainly made headlines. A push for investment in renewable energy to tackle power shortages and reduce carbon emissions was already under way. A recent blog on the Lagos State Government website called for a tree-planting programme to mitigate some climate change effects. On a national level, the Environment Ministry’s Department of Climate Change plans to engage Nigerians with an awareness campaign to be rolled out in three stages across the country. According to department spokesperson Onotu Bright Abavo, ”Lagos is next”, though no date has yet been set.

But solutions take time, and so for now Lagos residents have to come up with their own heat hacks. Unfortunately, the most common tactics – more AC, more generators – will encourage more emissions. Some businesses are exploring solar power, but it is pricey and not too common.

“Lagos is ever busy, the city never sleeps and I really do not think we are ready for most things like the heatwaves, floods and so on,” says Ekpu. “With the lack of constant electricity in many houses, people have to rely on themselves to generate power to make life more bearable.”

This part of the continent is hot most of the year, but this is likely to worsen due to the effects of climate change. Africa, says the UN (Credit: Getty Images)

Editor's note: This article was amended July 15 to include Stephen Gardiner's title as a Ben Rabinowitz Endowed Professor of the Human Dimensions of the Environment at the University of Washington.

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