A recent report published by the United Nations on the 15th of September 2017 has it that global hunger has increased for the first time in more than 10 years. “This has set off bells we cannot afford to ignore: we will not end hunger and all the forms of malnutrition by 2030 unless we address all the factors that undermine food security and nutrition”, said the head of five UN agencies in their joint foreword to the report. The report attributed this to climate change and the spread of violent conflicts. Climate change has been linked to different respiratory problems, malnutrition and even anxiety. Climate change was a central issue at the just concluded United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), with multiple high-level meetings on the issue happening amid several devastating natural disasters. Hurricane Irma recently swept through the Caribbean and into Florida, only to be quickly followed by Hurricane Maria.
According to The Lancet Countdown: tracking progress on health and climate change published in March 2017, the direct impacts of climate change result from rising temperatures, heatwaves, and increases in the frequency of complex extreme weather events such as windstorms, floods, and droughts. The health and social consequences of these events are far-reaching, ranging from reduced labour productivity and heat-related deaths, through to direct injury, the spread of infectious diseases, and mental health effects following widespread flooding.
Climate change underpins all the social and environmental determinants of health – clean air, safe drinking water, sufficient and secure shelter. The World Health Organization estimated that, in 2012, 12.6 million deaths (23% of all deaths worldwide) were attributable to modifiable environmental factors, many of which could be influenced by climate change or are related to the driving forces of climate change. Developing countries are and will continue to be worst hit as a result of weak health infrastructure and the inability to cope independently with preparation and emergency response.
Effects of climate change and key implications for health
Climate change affects human health via paths of varying complexities, scale and directness. Direct health implications include those due to increased production of various air pollutants, exposure to extreme weather – heatwaves and extreme weather events – floods, storm surges and droughts. These have translated into increase in infectious disease transmission, human displacement and food scarcity.
Dr. Oyinlola Oduyebo of the medical microbiology department at the Lagos University Teaching Hospital (LUTH), Idi-Araba recently said that “there are some infections that occur in season, so naturally if there is a change in season or climate, there will have to be changes in the types of infections and in the manner that they were originally known to occur”.
The recent flood in Makurdi, Benue State in Nigeria was as a result of rainfall that lasted for 72 hours displacing 121,000 persons with 4,000 houses submerged in water. Helen Teghtegh, head of a local NGO, when speaking to Al Jazeera asserted that the region had been battered heavily by the rains, with the level of the Benue river rising.
Flooding events have huge implications for water quality. There is a high risk for things like sewage and other chemicals to get into floodwater and spread. The risk for mosquito-borne diseases ranging from dengue fever to Zika can increase as floods recede, leaving breeding grounds for mosquitoes and other insects. Farmlands have also been washed away which has led to food scarcity. There is a limited access to safe drinking water which if not properly addressed would lead to dehydration. Some of the world’s most virulent diseases are climate-sensitive and different climatic factors – temperature, humidity and rain influence the life cycle of disease vectors. Another report by the WHO also asserted that “in addition to deaths from drowning, flooding causes extensive indirect health effects – impact on food production, water provision, ecosystem disruption, infectious disease outbreak and vector distribution”.
Indoor/Outdoor air pollution
Fossil fuels provide most of the energy that supports human transportation, electricity production, heating & cooling of buildings and industrial activity. Over the last 50 years, fossil fuels have exacerbated the changing climate. Nigeria flares 17.2 billion m3 of natural gas per year in conjunction with the exploration of crude oil in the Niger Delta. This high level of gas flaring is equal to approximately one quarter of the current power consumption of the African continent. The gases produced during this flaring activity have been linked to neurological disorders, cancers, respiratory problems, deformities in children and skin problems. Outdoor air quality has immense influence on indoor air quality. A report for the United States Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA) by the University of Connecticut Health Center has it that “atmospheric temperature and outdoor pollutants are contributors to indoor air quality.” To buttress this point, The Institute of Medicine of The National Academies’ Report Brief – Climate Change, the Indoor Environment and Health asserted that “the indoor environment can be contaminated by chemical, organic, and particulate pollutants that migrate from outdoors or that result from gas stoves and other indoor emission sources, such as building materials, radon, and environmental tobacco smoke.” The report went further to state that “climate change can affect these factors in various ways. For example, changes in the outdoor concentrations of a pollutant due to alterations in atmospheric chemistry or atmospheric circulation will affect indoor concentrations.”
Extreme weather events
High temperatures raise the level of ozone in the atmosphere which worsens cardiovascular and respiratory diseases. High temperatures also mean that there will increase rates of evaporation and in turn precipitation. Rising sea levels will destroy homes and medical facilities. The Director of the Nigerian Meteorological Agency (NIMET), Joseph Alozie said that the negative impacts of climate change are real in the desert prone states of Nigeria. This will definitely lead to skyrocketing population pressure thereby straining already limited environmental resources which can result in conflicts and death.
A call to action
Nick Nuttall, spokesperson for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) during an interview with Time Magazine last week said that “I think it’s clear quite a few countries, particularly in the developing world where air pollution is high, see that there is an opportunity to reduce climate change and improve health.” He went further to say that “major health benefits come from acting on climate change, both direct and indirect. Preventing deforestation limits flooding, which cuts back on the number of pests like mosquitoes that can accumulate and spread diseases.”
According to the National Adaptation Strategy and Plan for Action on Climate Change for Nigeria, climate change is already having significant impacts in Nigeria, and these impacts are expected to increase in the future. The report has it that “recent estimates suggest that, in the absence of adaptation, climate change could result in a loss of between 2% and 11% of Nigeria’s GDP by 2020, rising to between 6% and 30% by the year 2050. This loss is equivalent to between 15 trillion Naira (US$100 billion) and 69 trillion Naira (US$460 billion). This large projected cost is the result of a wide range of climate change impacts affecting all sectors in Nigeria.”
It is evident that synergistic efforts between the private and government sector in Nigeria is essential and of utmost importance. All levels of both sectors need to show undiluted commitment and will by investing in adaptation and mitigation measures. Financing these measures should not be solely dependent on funds coming from outside the country. Furthermore, climate resilience, adaptation and mitigation should be included in the curriculum of all levels of education.