Cape Town — What does health have to do with climate change? If you stop to think about it: Everything.
A report by the United Nations Environment Program looked at how higher temperatures in cities would effect the health of the people who live there. This is because cities will be even hotter due to heat islands created when roads and buildings absorb heat, making the surrounding areas hotter. And if you consider that Africa’s cities are growing at an incredible rate, and that many people who move to urban centres end up living in informal areas with little to no infrastructure, it becomes clear that the continent’s healthcare sector is facing a big challenge.
The report says that the risk of extreme heat is a rising threat to cities across the world but more so for developing countries who don’t have the resources to cope with increased demand for cooling. And in those settings it will most affect children, the elderly, and people with co-morbidities, especially those with cardiovascular issues. The World Health Organization (WHO) echoes this. “Countries’ inability to protect health from climate change is most harmful for their most disadvantaged groups, including ethnic minorities, poor communities, migrants and displaced people, older people and many women and children.”
When it comes to floods, stagnant water and a lack of clean drinking water and sanitation leads to waterborne diseases such diarrhoea, cholera, dysentery, typhoid and polio. Contaminated drinking-water is estimated to cause 502,000 diarrhoeal deaths each year.
According to Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), who works to support displaced and vulnerable people in Somalia, “The most significant impact of climate change can be seen in malnutrition among children. If climate change continues as projected, diminished food production and reduced nutritional quality of some cereal crops could increase the risk of undernutrition – with infants likely to be the worst affected.”
What can be done?
So what plans are countries putting in place to deal with the health effects of the climate crisis? The 2021 WHO health and climate change global survey report looks at how nations are prioritising health in their efforts to protect people from the impact of climate change. The survey is conducted every three years and provides a measure of progress countries are making in designing and implementing health policies that are climate aware.
In a briefing held ahead of COP26, Dr Maria Neira, the Director of Climate Change and Health at the WHO, said: “We know that climate change is affecting our health that has been clearly demonstrated … But we know very well that climate change is affecting the pillars of our health, food, water, and the quality of the air and shelter. So as you can imagine, all of that will represent a major risk for our health. And therefore we need to invest in adaptation to climate change, change on more resilient healthcare facilities and systems and a more resilient society. But the positive message on the health argument is that whatever you do to tackle the causes of climate change will have enormous benefit for the health of the people” .
The global health body recommended the following ahead of the climate talks:
Commit to a healthy recovery. Commit to a healthy, green and just recovery from Covid-19
Our health is not negotiable. Place health and social justice at the heart of the UN climate talks.
Harness the health benefits of climate action. Prioritise those climate interventions with the largest health-, social- and economic gains.
Build health resilience to climate risks. Build climate resilient and environmentally sustainable health systems and facilities, and support health adaptation and resilience across sectors.
Create energy systems that protect and improve climate and health. Guide a just and inclusive transition to renewable energy to save lives from air pollution, particularly from coal combustion. End energy poverty in households and health care facilities.
Reimagine urban environments, transport and mobility. Promote sustainable, healthy urban design and transport systems, with improved land-use, access to green and blue public space, and priority for walking, cycling and public transport.
Protect and restore nature as the foundation of our health. Protect and restore natural systems, the foundations for healthy lives, sustainable food systems and livelihoods.
Promote healthy, sustainable and resilient food systems. Promote sustainable and resilient food production and more affordable, nutritious diets that deliver on both climate and health outcomes.
Finance a healthier, fairer and greener future to save lives. Transition towards a wellbeing economy.
Listen to the health community and prescribe urgent climate action. Mobilise and support the health community on climate action
“One of the big constraints that is often put forward for climate action is that it costs money. In fact, if you take into account the health gains, it saves money. The IMF recently came out with a report that estimated that we’re currently as the globe financing the fossil fuel industry, to the tune of about $5.9 trillion a year. That’s about $11 million a minute. And about half of that is the unpaid health costs of air pollution and so on. So we can save that money, get the health gains if we have to put it into healthier energy systems,” says Dr Diarmid Campbell-Lendrum, Team Lead of the WHO Climate Change and Health programme.
Howard Hatton, the CEO of the International Council of Nurses, says “it’s why business as usual is not an option. And it’s why now we need to truly have health at the centre of all our policies energy, transport, agriculture, water and food”.