The Sunday News
DURING the UN-led celebrations for World Environment Day about a decade ago, the director-general of the World Health Organisation, Dr Margaret Chan, made a comment on how climate change impacts on health.
She said: “The warming of the planet will be gradual, but the effects of extreme weather events (more storms, floods, droughts and heat waves) will be abrupt and acutely felt. Both trends can affect some of the most fundamental determinants of health which are air, water, food, shelter and freedom from disease.”
Dr Chan’s statement followed worldwide concerns about the impact of climate change on the quality of life on the planet.
This declaration stirs the desire to unpack and explore the relationship between climate change, human health and wellbeing.
While exploring this relationship, it is also important to look at how an act as simple as planting a tree can go a long way to alleviate the effects of climate change on people’s health.
Climate change experts attribute the phenomena to unsustainable human exploitation of natural resources. It may thus suffice to argue that human action towards the restoration of the integrity of the natural environment can contribute significantly to alleviating the impact of climate change on human life.
The environmental consequences of climate change, both those already observed and those that are anticipated, such as changes in rainfall resulting in flooding and drought, heat waves, more intense cyclones and storms, and degraded air quality, affect human health and wellbeing both directly and indirectly.
Directly through impacts of thermal stress, and death or injury during floods and storms and indirectly through changes in the ranges of disease vectors (e.g. mosquitoes), water-borne pathogens, water quality, air quality, and food availability and quality.
Exposure to heat waves and death or injury from extreme weather are the more common direct impacts of climate change.
While Zimbabwe is in a part of the world where heat exposure is not a noteworthy challenge, the recently experienced heatwave put certain members of our community in very uncomfortable positions.
For example, the elderly and those who suffer from cardio-vascular and respiratory diseases are most likely to suffer more at the hands of climate change induced heatwaves.
Climate change may also result in floods and cyclones which often lead to death or serious injuries to people.
The combination of high temperatures and rainfall resulting from climate change may also increase the spatial and temporal distribution of vector borne diseases such as malaria.
Viral and bacterial diseases may also increase because virus and bacteria replication rates are sensitive to temperature.
High temperatures, water scarcity and low river flows can put food harvests at risk while flood events can also destroy harvests. Low food yields may ultimately exacerbate undernutrition and lead to adverse health outcomes (especially physical and mental development of children).
Climate change affects temperature, humidity and wind which in turn affect the formation, transportation and dispersion of air pollutants. Climate change may therefore influence pollutant concentrations, which may affect health as air pollution is related to cardio-respiratory health.
Thus exposure to high levels of ground-level ozone, for example, which is formed from the exhaust of transport vehicles, increases the risk of exacerbations of respiratory diseases such as asthma.
Addressing the effects of climate change on human health is especially challenging because both the surrounding environment and the decisions that people make influence health.
However, given the afore-mentioned impacts of climate change on health, it is prudent to suggest that activities taken to ensure environmental sustainability and reduce greenhouse gas emission have several potential benefits for health as well.
Can a simple act like tree planting help mitigate the impact of climate change and improve the health and wellbeing of people?
Climate change expert Dr Nkulumo Zinyengere, observed that: “One of the most gainful and holistic ways of tackling climate change while contributing to public health is through planting trees. I am in no way suggesting that tree planting or good environmental stewardship can replace the provision of basic services such as primary health care, nutrition programmes, and adequate water supply and sanitation. I believe that completely ignoring the value of a healthy planet on human health and wellbeing is potentially calamitous.”
Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry in the book “The universe story” state that: “The wellbeing of the eco-system of the planet is a prior condition for the wellbeing of humans. We cannot have wellbeing on a sick planet, not even with our medical science. So long as we continue to generate more toxins than the planet can absorb and transform, the members of the earth community will become ill.”
In light of the above postulations it may therefore be prudent to suggest that planting trees may be seen as one of the best ways we can to ensure a healthy planet for good human health and wellbeing.
Elementary environmental science has it that trees work every day for all of us to improve our environment, health and quality of life. They improve our air, protect our water and save energy.
Trees have the ability to regulate local temperatures by transpiring water into the lower atmosphere and shading surfaces. By so doing, trees help to reduce the intensity of heat waves thereby reducing the effects of heat waves.
Planting trees remains one of the cheapest, most effective means of drawing excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Since excessive carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere are the leading cause of human induced climate change, trees become an important tool for mitigating and curbing climate change.
A single mature tree is said to be able to absorb carbon dioxide at a rate of 21,6 kg per year and release enough oxygen back into the atmosphere to support human beings.
Imagine the immense benefits the country would derive, if every Zimbabwean were to make it their priority to plant at least one tree every month. The country has over 13 million citizens.
Zimbabwe will, as per the country’s tradition, on the first Saturday of December commemorate its National Tree planting Day, led by President Mugabe.
According to the Forestry Commission of Zimbabwe, the country loses about 330 000 hectares of natural forests annually due to deforestation which has led to loss of more than 21 percent of Zimbabwe’s forest cover over the past two decades.
At this rate, and without any deliberate effort to replenish our forests, the country could, in a couple of years, face serious and irreversible depletion of its forests. The wellbeing of citizens will inevitably be under constant threat.
As we approach the National Tree Planting Day commemorations, it is important to take note of the importance of tree planting and how a simple act of giving life to a plant can have overwhelming returns to the entire human race.
Realising the importance of trees to the lives and wellbeing of people, the Forestry Commission has embarked on a number of projects aimed at promoting tree planting in the country.
Forestry Commission spokesperson Ms Violet Makoto said her organisation was looking at preaching the gospel of tree planting to churches during their services, taking advantage of the fact that church members gather in larger numbers.
Ms Makoto said such a strategy would ensure that the tree planting message reaches a large number of people at one go using minimum resources.
“Such people command a lot of following and respect among their members and working with them would give us a lot of mileage in terms of the message we want to put across to people. If we manage to convince the leaders to preach to their followers the importance of tree planting then we know we would have made significant steps in promoting the culture.
“Most people in Zimbabwe have a church of some sort that they attend regularly. As such we are targeting every church in the country with our programme and that way we know we would have preached our message to quite a significant number of people.
“We are also targeting church gatherings such as Easter conferences, congresses and any such church gathering where there are large people. At such events we would encourage people to plant trees during or before they end their function,” she said.
The Forestry Commission piloted this project with Zion Christian Church, during the church’s Easter conference at Mbungo estates in Masvingo province this year, where 6 000 trees were planted during a tree planting ceremony led by the church’s leader Bishop Nehemiah Mutendi.
Ms Makoto added that her organisation would also continue to strengthen its intervention strategies and programmes with tobacco farming communities in the country, encouraging them to practice sustainable forestry management.
Tobacco farmers are touted as the biggest culprits in deforestation.
Trees are life, give trees life and they will give life in return.