The health-climate connection

As climate change brings new threats to health, such as the propagation of air and vector borne diseases, heat illness, and of course, from more intense disasters, human systems are challenged to respond to increased demand for heath services in conditions of greater strain.

Yesterday evening at the side of COP19 in Warsaw, a rich discussion on food security, health and disaster risk reduction was had by a diverse panel of experts from the World Health Organization (WHO), World Meteorological Organization (WMO), the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR), the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and Bangladesh’s Ministry of Health and Family Welfare.

In Bangladesh, Dr. Iqbal Kabir asserted that over 36 million people living in coastal belts are vulnerable to climate related disasters, and that the cost of climate change to the health sector is $2.8 billion each year.

It is even more staggering to extrapolate the health impacts at the global level. Luna Abu-Swaireh of UNISDR projected 226 million people each year are affected by disasters.

Elwyn Grainger-Jones of IFAD said that unless we build the climate resilience of smallholders we could leave many without enough food to survive. Up to 80 per cent of the population in developing countries are dependent on smallholder farms for the food they consume.

There was consensus on the panel that the notion of resilience should contribute to designing health systems that do not break when confronted with climate related shocks and stresses. But how to define resilience was a much larger proposition; and the panelists addressed different dimensions, depending on the mandate of his or her own organization. For instance, Dr. Braulio de Souza Dias of CBD spoke on the crucial need to maintain biological diversity, in particular genetic diversity, if we want to ensure our food systems have the capacity to adapt to climate change. “For centuries we have been simplifying agriculture, and this is breeding a more vulnerable world,” he said.

More systematic knowledge of climate risks and vulnerabilities is key if health ministries and others at various governance levels can truly hope to fight the health impacts of climate change effectively. Presently, meteorological offices often have limited access to quality climate services that could offer a better picture of risk.

Elena Manaenkova of WMO said more than 70 countries have only basic, or less than basic capabilities to provide climate services. This is something that the WMO is working on with national and subnational counterparts.

Finally, the panelists recognized that the determinants of health are partially the result of policies in many other sectors. Therefore, vertical solutions made in health ministries cannot by themselves disentangle the interconnected problems of health and climate, which call for better collaboration in dealing with complexity.