The Sunday News
Vincent Gono, Features Editor
WHILE a lot has been said about the effects of climate change on agriculture, energy, water and the general industrial development, little has been said about its grim effects on health not only in Zimbabwe and the developing world but globally.
Although the subject of climate change is scientific by the nature of it requiring a lot of science and research, not all its effects are as scientific and difficult to unpack, neither are they controversial or a cause of a splitting headache, they are bare.
That climate change has caused a dip in agricultural production as hot weather has become extreme and at times there are often prolonged and incessant rainfall patterns is there for all to see.
Climate change has exerted a lot of stress on water sources that also feed hydro power generation and irrigation schemes, thereby affecting industry that drives economies. The catalogue of problems caused by climate change are not limited to water, agriculture and energy but they stretch even further to issues of health as auxiliary to agriculture and water or as a direct effect of the climatic changes.
Developing countries are however, finding it difficult to adapt to the changes as they have small financial muscle to deal with the problems. The World Health Organisation (WHO) notes that the effects of climate change on health are more pronounced in developing countries and identify children and the elderly as more susceptible to the effects of the global catastrophe.
A report on the effects of changes in climate on health says, “Children — in particular, children living in poor countries — are among the most vulnerable to the resulting health risks and will be exposed longer to the health consequences. The health effects are also expected to be more severe for elderly people and people with infirmities or pre-existing medical conditions.”
Although it has been noted that climate change may bring some localised benefits, such as fewer winter deaths in temperate climates and increased food production in certain areas, it has been submitted that the overall health effects of a changing climate are likely to be overwhelmingly negative.
Climate change affects social and environmental determinants of health — clean air, safe drinking water, sufficient food and secure shelter.
The WHO report says extreme high air temperatures contribute directly to deaths from cardiovascular and respiratory disease, particularly among elderly people.
“High temperatures also raise the levels of ozone and other pollutants in the air that exacerbate cardiovascular and respiratory disease. Pollen and other aero-allergen levels are also higher in extreme heat. These can trigger asthma, which affects around 300 million people. Ongoing temperature increases are expected to increase this burden.
“Globally, the number of reported weather-related natural disasters has more than tripled since the 1960s. Every year, these disasters result in over 60 000 deaths, mainly in developing countries. Rising sea levels and increasingly extreme weather events will destroy homes, medical facilities and other essential services. People may be forced to move, which in turn heightens the risk of a range of health effects, from mental disorders to communicable diseases,” reads part of the WHO report.
The report makes a passionate call on countries to ensure that mitigation and adaptation measures are put in place to avoid loss of life and increased effects of climate change on health.
In Zimbabwe and other developing countries increasing rainfall variability patterns are likely to affect the supply of fresh water.
Research from health experts have shown that a lack of safe water can compromise hygiene and increase the risk of diarrhoeal disease, which kills over 500 000 children under 5 years, every year.
In extreme cases, water scarcity leads to drought and famine and by the late 21st century, climate change is likely to increase the frequency and intensity of drought at regional and global scale.
Floods are also increasing in frequency and intensity, and the frequency and intensity of extreme precipitation is expected to continue to increase throughout the current century.
According to Mr Washington Zhakata who is the director in the Climate Change Department under the Ministry of Lands, Agriculture, Water, Climate and Resettlement, floods contaminate fresh water supplies, heighten the risk of water-borne diseases, and create breeding grounds for disease-carrying insects such as mosquitoes. They also cause drowning and physical injuries, damage homes and disrupt the supply of medical and health services while rising temperatures and variable precipitation are likely to decrease the production of staple foods in many of the poorest regions. This will increase the prevalence of malnutrition and under nutrition.
Changes in climate are also likely to lengthen the transmission seasons of important vector-borne diseases and to alter their geographic range.
“The effects of climate change on health cannot be overstated. Rising temperatures in countries like Zimbabwe heighten the risk of skin infections in people, especially those that are living with albinism and with the small financial muscle we have the situation is not rosy.
“We are particularly worried about all the effects of climate change on every sector and health is one of the most important ones. Health in some cases is linked to agriculture where malnutrition is caused by drought but there are direct effects of climate change on health such as increase in malaria cases,” said Mr Zhakata.
It also emerged at the Low Emission Development Strategy and Measurement, Reporting and Verification Framework Development workshop in Bulawayo on Thursday that climate change has serious implications on public health where extreme weather events, variable climates that affect food and water supplies, ecosystem changes pose health risks.
It also emerged that diseases such as malaria are strongly influenced by climate.
Continuing climate change will affect, in profoundly adverse ways, some of the social and environmental determinants of health: food, air and water, according to WHO Director-General Dr Margaret Chan. Areas with weak health infrastructure — mostly in developing countries — will be the least able to cope without assistance to prepare and respond.
Zimbabwe is however, making strides in building resilience and adaptation under the climate fund which is being managed by the Infrastructure Development Bank of Zimbabwe (IDBZ) where institutions and individuals apply for money with resilience and adaptation concepts.
The bank’s Chief Investment Analyst Mr Brian Murewa however, lamented the lack of concepts on building resilience and adaptation to climate change’s effects on health.
“We have received concepts in areas of agriculture and some other areas but nothing on health despite the challenges posed by climate change to health issues especially in developing countries like Zimbabwe.
“IDBZ is one of the national implementing entities through the ministry of Lands, Agriculture, Water, Climate, and Rural Resettlement. We are facilitating and managing the implementation of the concepts but there has been little if not nothing in terms of the climate change link to health,” said Mr Murewa.
The 2019 National Budget Statement acknowledged the issue of climate change, noting that it poses serious threats to human development especially on food security, livelihoods and education.
“The 2017 Zimbabwe Human Development Report highlighted that there has been an overall decline in rainfall of five percent over the last century. The effects of climate change on the economy are huge and farmers should adapt accordingly. Adopting agro-ecology and climate resilient agricultural practices such as conservation agriculture and smart climate agriculture to promote food security in the communal areas should be prioritised to avoid the negative health impacts that come with climate change,” reads part of the National Budget Statement.