HomeOpinion & AnalysisColumnistsOf health, climate change ‘n’ sinking ship

Of health, climate change ‘n’ sinking ship


Advance warning is an imperative in getting people out of harm’s way in cases of any dangers such as those caused by the changing climate.

Report by Wisdom Mdzungairi

Precisely had the massive storms like Hurricane Sandy, which is currently devastating the East Coast of the United States, not been seen before striking, many people more than those that have been affected could have perhaps suffered.

Is there any relation between weather forecasts and health? Yes, early information about the climate and weather forecasts plays a vital role in preventing and preparing for different ways to counteract any kind of disease epidemics.

In this regard, the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) and World Health Organisation (WHO) this past week published its first Atlas of Health and Climate.

According to the WMO, the speed with which the climate is changing all over the world is a matter of great concern as it tends to bring a number of hazards to human health.

This is a new tool to map health risks linked to climate change and extreme weather conditions, enabling authorities to give advance warnings and act to prevent “climate-sensitive” diseases from spreading.

The serious perennial water problems affecting most urban areas — Harare, Bulawayo, Mutare and Gweru, among others — it is no laughing matter as millions of urban dwellers are sitting on a health time bomb. The water crisis has come with its health problems — diarrhoea, malaria and an unprecedented increase in meningitis cases follow in the wake of sudden, but often foreseeable shifts in climate change.

When this Atlas of Health and Climate was presented, WHO secretary-general Margaret Chan and WMO chief Michel Jarraud indicated it could be used as a guide for decision-makers on how to prevent such diseases.

They said this tool should assist policymakers to make decisions given the fact that over 20 countries in sub-Saharan Africa, including Zimbabwe, were affected by bacterial meningitis brought each year by a hot and dusty wind that blows across the so-called meningitis belt.

Sadly, it is projected that heat extremes now expected to occur only once in 20 years, may occur every two to five years by the middle of this century. At the same time, the number of older people living in cities will almost quadruple globally, from 380 million in 2010, to 1,4 billion in 2050. And so co-operation between health and climate departments can create measures to better protect people in this vulnerable group from heat stress during periods of extreme weather.

The unique Atlas also shows how the relationship between health and climate is shaped by other vulnerabilities, such as those created by poverty, environmental degradation, and poor infrastructure, especially for water and sanitation.

Which is more sound — to seek the best lounge seat on a sinking ship or to get into a lifeboat? Your guess is just as good as mine.

Health minister Henry Madzorera and Environment minister Francis Nhema should steer clear of partisan politics and work together to improve and increase climate services.

When I flipped through this Atlas, I found out that it illustrates the most pressing current and emerging problems to human health caused by global climate changes.

For instance, areas like Masvingo, Beitbridge, Matabeleland regions and low-lying Zambezi Valley and Dande Valley, among others, have never had meaningful maize harvests for decades now due to droughts, floods and cyclones. That phenomenon has also affected the health of thousands of people each year by triggering epidemics of diseases such as diarrhoea, malaria and meningitis, which cause death and suffering for many millions more.

The Atlas gives practical examples of how the use of weather and climate information protect public health. WMO says greater focus will now be given to climate resources protecting public health and the key word in the new resource is information, providing prevention and preparedness and in turn delivering risk management and reduction, which governments should take advantage of.

It is only by strengthening the ties between the technological resources available will it be possible to deliver up-dated information on weather and climate challenges and events, integrating this information into public health management systems at all levels: local, national and international.

Technological information systems have greatly reduced human casualties over the years, an example given being that of Bangladesh where in 1970, 500000 people died because of a storm and in 2007 the number was under 3 000.

If the climate services are used in an effective manner then initiatives could be surely made to safeguard the health of societies in a reflective manner. For this, there has to be stronger collaboration between the meteorological and health communities.


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