Climate Change : the Biggest Global Health threat of the 21st Century By Esther Agbarakwe
Malaria, HIV, Tuberculosis, diarrhoea and Ebola are some of the urgent public health challenges facing the growing population of Sub-Saharan Africa, the least urbanized region in the world. Climate change on the other hand will make these worse for Africans especially those in poorer communities.
Life is already hard among communities living in rural areas and slums with very limited or no access to health infrastructures or any social infrastructure at all. Climate change is making life even harder.
‘Health is wealth’ – is what we have been told from generation to generation. Now we are witnessing an increase in the frequency of droughts leading to a lack of access to water supplies for consumption and sanitation. It also cuts into agricultural productivity and may even lead to migration of people in search of food, fuel and shelter.
As our agriculture is rain-fed, there is documented evidence that food scarcity will increase for both urban and rural populations across Africa resulting in mal-nutrition. According to the World Health Organisation, clean water is the critical factor that either keeps slum dwellers healthy, or makes them sick. But both in drought and in flood, ditches, latrines and septic tanks may become key reservoirs of cholera, malaria, dengue and yellow fever.
The sheer number of people also makes these areas rife for spreading infectious diseases such as pertussis and influenza. Think of parts of Lagos, Nigeria and Nairobi for instance.
The first Lancet Commission report on climate and health – published in 2009 – described climate change as “the biggest global health threat of the 21st century.”
In their new report released last month, the Commission reaffirms the severity of the threat climate change poses to health globally, but adds support for action, finding that tackling climate change could be the greatest global health opportunity of the 21st century. Including all of the diseases mentioned above
Unfortunately, the catastrophic risk to human health has been underestimated, according to the report authors.
The report shows that the impacts of increasingly common and intense weather events, especially heat waves and floods, have a direct relationship with otherwise “indirect impacts” such as changes in infectious disease patterns, air pollution and food shortages.
The report demonstrates that the threat to human health from climate change is so great, “it could undermine the last fifty years of gains in development and public health”.
They also note that many policies to address climate change are “no-regret” policies. These are the type of policies that not only reduce ill health, but enhance resilience, alleviate poverty and address inequality.
By investing in clean energy over fossil fuels for example, governments will not only be reducing the climate threat, but immediately improve air quality and reduce respiratory and cardiovascular illnesses,
So why are we not talking about climate change and health?
People will argue that poverty, unemployment and security are more urgent concerns for Africa.
For Nigeria, fighting Boko-harem and recovering stolen funds from the immediate past government seems to be the most important focus of President Buhari. But how do you solve poverty, unemployment and security without paying adequate attention to how the environment that is affecting people?
One will also argue that climate change in itself is a hard topic to talk about, understanding the linkage between health and climate change makes it even harder.
But from the highly publicized recent flooding in Accra, Ghana to the recent flooding in Lagos State, it becomes clear that something is dramatically affecting our lives now in a way that it never had done in the past.
The fact remains that government alone can’t solve the climate crisis. Even as Buhari has pledged repeatedly to make Nigeria a global and regional leader in the fight against climate change even he cannot do it without an enthusiastic public show of support.
While he needs to take the lead in investing in clean energy technologies and other much needed social infrastructures, the people need to spread more and more information about climate change. This where the passion and creativity of young people, the largest population in sub-Saharan Africa comes into play as they remain key drivers to achieving the world we all want; safe, clean and equitable
Climate change presents an opportunity to improve access to comprehensive health care services through investment in social infrastructure like clean and safe water, renewable energy, and sanitation. Maybe talking more about Climate change and health will make government take climate change crisis more serious as health is wealth!
Esther Agbarakwe is an international development analyst with strong passion for climate change and public health. Follow her on twitter: @estherclimate