The im­pact of cli­mate change on health is just be­gin­ning to be un­der­stood.

The East African - - FRONT PAGE -

Half a cen­tury ago con­cerns about cli­mate change, en­vi­ron­ment vul­ner­a­bil­ity, pop­u­la­tion den­sity and the sus­tain­abil­ity of earth sys­tems reached a broad au­di­ence. This was clear from books like Silent Spring, pub­lished in 1962, and The Lim­its to Growth, pub­lished 10 years later.

These works in­flu­enced en­vi­ron­men­tal ac­tivism at the time. They also pub­li­cised the grow­ing sci­en­tific ev­i­dence that cli­mate change was hap­pen­ing and was neg­a­tively af­fect­ing the earth.

But one piece of the puz­zle re­mained miss­ing: The im­pact of cli­mate change on peo­ple, and specif­i­cally, on public health.

This changed at the be­gin­ning of this cen­tury with grow­ing ad­vo­cacy and gath­er­ings such as the Con­fer­ence of Par­ties and the pub­li­ca­tion of new re­search. Sci­en­tists be­gan writ­ing about the earth mov­ing into a new era called the An­thro­pocene. This is an era in which ecosys­tems are in­creas­ingly af­fected by hu­man be­hav­iour, and in which peo­ple are di­rectly af­fected by the changes brought about by their ac­tions.

The An­thro­pocene pro­vided the im­pe­tus for re­newed at­ten­tion to health and the sus­tain­abil­ity of all species. This new un­der­stand­ing led to new re­search across dis­ci­plines, to new in­ter­dis­ci­pli­nary jour­nals, and to pol­icy doc­u­ments on the im­pact of cli­mate change on health. Ma­jor new in­sights be­gan to emerge. These in­cluded the fact that changes in weather pat­terns were af­fect­ing the be­hav­iour of mosquitoes. This in turn was af­fect­ing our abil­ity to con­trol dis­ease.

A raft of work also started to emerge on the ef­fects of chang­ing weather pat­terns, heat waves, and ac­cess to clean wa­ter on peo­ple’s health.

The next step along this jour­ney was that aca­demics came to re­alise that they can’t work in dis­ci­plinary si­los. For ex­am­ple, health sci­en­tists re­alised that they needed an­thro­pol­o­gists, so­ci­ol­o­gists and economists for a full un­der­stand­ing of the im­pact of cli­mate change. The cir­cle of knowl­edge has, as a re­sult, be­gun to ex­pand.

Par­al­lel to these ef­forts, artists and ad­vo­cacy groups have worked to keep cli­mate change on in­ter­na­tional and na­tional pol­icy agen­das. For ex­am­ple, artists have taken in­spi­ra­tion and drawn from sci­en­tific re­search in en­gi­neer­ing, chem­istry, bi­ol­ogy, and the earth sciences to make their art. In a first of its kind on the African con­ti­nent, these ef­forts are re­flected at a 10-day public and aca­demic pro­gramme at the Uni­ver­sity of the Wit­wa­ter­srand. The pro­gramme en­meshes art and sci­ence to pro­voke new think­ing about wa­ter and how its politi­ci­sa­tion af­fects public health.

In­sights from dif­fer­ent dis­ci­plines

Ex­treme weather events, shifts in tem­per­a­ture vari­a­tion and pre­cip­i­ta­tion, and higher mean tem­per­a­tures have dra­mat­i­cally af­fected hu­man health and well­be­ing.

From a health per­spec­tive, in­cre­men­tal en­vi­ron­men­tal changes over time have un­done decades of in­vest­ment in the con­trol of in­fec­tious dis­eases. Many of these are wa­ter­borne and wa­ter-washed dis­eases, such as dysen­tery and sca­bies. They are re­sult of poor per­sonal hy­giene be­cause of in­ad­e­quate wa­ter avail­abil­ity. These dis­eases, com­mon through­out Africa, are of­ten de­scribed as ne­glected dis­eases of poverty.

Sci­en­tists have started to ex­plore the var­i­ous af­fects in dif­fer­ent set­tings in re­la­tion to dif­fer­ent dis­eases.

For ex­am­ple, changes in tem­per­a­ture and rain­fall have, in turn, changed the be­hav­iour of vec­tors such as mosquitoes, flies and snails, with other fac­tors com­pli­cat­ing the spread of dis­ease. This means the set­tings that cre­ate the con­di­tions for de­bil­i­tat­ing and po­ten­tially fa­tal dis­eases such as malaria, zika, and dengue have shifted. Thus mosquitoes have moved to new ar­eas, in­tro­duc­ing in­fec­tion to pre­vi­ously un­af­fected peo­ple and cer­tain an­i­mals.

An­thro­pol­o­gists have used a dif­fer­ent lens to un­der­stand the im­pact. Re­search shows that in­equal­ity in­flu­ences peo­ple’s ex­po­sure to vec­tor-borne dis­eases and other en­vi­ron­men­tally sen­si­tive in­fec­tions. Gen­der, class and age have also emerged as points of vul­ner­a­bil­ity for dis­ease and poor health in the con­text of cli­mate change.

Cli­mate change has, most notably, be­gun to af­fect weather pat­terns. Changes in pre­cip­i­ta­tion and quan­tity, floods and droughts, and wa­ter in­se­cu­rity are in­creas­ingly com­mon as the planet warms.

Sci­en­tists have be­gun to track how this af­fects food pro­duc­tion and other farm­ing ac­tiv­i­ties. This in turn af­fects peo­ple’s liveli­hoods and food se­cu­rity. These changes are in­creas­ingly be­ing fol­lowed not just by cli­mate sci­en­tists, but also by aca­demics from dis­ci­plines such as eco­nomics and pol­i­tics. This fol­lows the re­al­i­sa­tion that the chal­lenges of age­ing in­fra­struc­ture and wa­ter gover­nance com­pli­cate find­ing so­lu­tions to the chal­lenges posed by global warm­ing.

Creative in­ter­ven­tions

Sci­en­tists in the spheres of so­cial, bi­o­log­i­cal, and phys­i­cal sciences as well as the humanities and arts – need to con­tinue to work on ways to in­ter­rupt dis­ease trans­mis­sion in the con­text of global warm­ing. They need to iden­tify ap­pro­pri­ate in­ter­ven­tions where cli­mate change af­fects health – and to come up with creative so­lu­tions that cut across nar­row paths of think­ing. Artists and civil so­ci­ety have a key role to play by cre­at­ing nar­ra­tive, vis­ual and acous­tic forms to sup­port ad­vo­cacy on is­sues of cli­mate change, pol­lu­tion, the ecol­ogy and en­vi­ron­men­tal jus­tice.

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