In a positive step towards raising awareness and fostering collaborative efforts to protect lives and livelihood from the adverse health impacts of global warming, the COP28 in Dubai on December 3, will host the first "Health Day" ever held at the climate talks. ARCHANA JYOTI reports how climate change is affecting health system particularly in India
From extreme heat to the spread of infectious diseases and vector-borne illness like dengue and Zika, global food security to air pollution causing respiratory ailments like asthma, climate change is gradually spreading its tentacles, affecting our health and health system on multiple fronts.
In fact, the extreme weather events around the world in recent months offer a terrifying glimpse of what lies ahead in a rapidly heating world including India.
This has been evidenced in two reports released back-to -back recently by the Lancet and the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), a think tank which have raised serious red flags on health scenario in India.
The CSE report 'India 2023: An assessment of extreme weather events' points out that India experienced extreme weather events almost every day in the first nine months this year, claiming 2,923 human lives with maximum mortalities reported from Bihar.
Extreme weathers affected 1.84 million hectares (ha) of crop area, damaged 80,563 houses, and killed over 92,519 animals.
It underscores the need for immediate actions to curb the escalating environmental crisis as it said that “But these numbers might be even higher because not all the data is collected.” The experts have long argued that the climate crisis is a health crisis and that considerations of health impacts should be central to climate negotiations.
Increasingly frequent and severe extreme weather events, such as droughts, floods and heatwaves, will also strain healthcare infrastructure.
For instance, Madhya Pradesh reported the highest number of extreme weather events at 138. However, the largest number of deaths occurred in Bihar (642), followed by Himachal Pradesh (365) and Uttar Pradesh (341).
As per the report, Punjab recorded the highest number of animal deaths while Himachal Pradesh reported the most damaged houses due to extreme weather events. Southern region too was impacted by the abnormal weather. For instance, Kerala witnessed the highest count of extreme weather days (67) and deaths (60) while Telangana suffered maximum effect on crop area (over 62,000 hectares) and high animal casualties (645). Karnataka faced severe destruction, with over 11,000 houses demolished.
In northwest India, the most populated State, Uttar Pradesh had the most extreme weather days at 113. Himachal Pradesh, Punjab, Haryana, Uttarakhand, and Rajasthan were also significantly affected.
Also, as the climate crisis jeopardizes lives and livelihoods, global food systems struggle to sustain a growing population, and compromised water sources compound the challenges. In parallel, climate change is catalyzing a surge in infectious diseases like dengue and cholera, endangering millions and putting pressure on the already dismal health infrastructure
The report further notes that in the eastern and northeastern regions, Assam registered maximum extreme weather events (102), with the state losing 159 livestock and over 48,000 hectares of crops devastated. Nagaland saw over 1,900 houses destroyed.
“ January was slightly warmer than average, while February broke records, becoming the warmest in 122 years. India had its sixth driest February and the driest August in 122 years.”
It said lightning and storms were the most common disasters, occurring on 176 out of 273 days and claiming 711 lives while the most significant devastation came from heavy rains, floods, and landslides, causing over 1,900 deaths.
The reported impact of extreme weather events in India is indeed alarming. The statistics provided underscore the human, agricultural, and environmental toll of climate-related incidents. The details of the report highlight the vulnerability of different regions in India to these extreme events, with Bihar being particularly affected. This underscores the need for upgrading key interventions such as vector control, epidemiological surveillance, and access to safe water and sanitation. To reduce the negative impact on health, the health community stresses the importance of reducing and stopping emissions.
Another report by the Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change, is equally alarming. It highlights concerning trends in heat and health, indicating a rise in exposure to high temperatures that jeopardise livelihoods and endangers public health in India.
The report reveals a 43% increase in the total number of heatwave days experienced by children under the age of one from 2013-2022 compared to the 1986-2005 period. Adults over 65 saw a staggering 216% increase in heatwave days during the same timeframe. These alarming statistics underline the immediate impact on health and the urgency of mitigation and adaptation actions.
The economic toll of heat exposure is substantial, with 191 billion potential labor hours lost in 2022 alone, a 54% increase from 1991-2000. This loss amounted to a potential income loss of USD219 billion in 2022, equivalent to 6.3% of the country's GDP. Agricultural workers bore the brunt, experiencing 64% of potential hours lost and 55% of potential income losses.
The projected scenario, where temperatures exceed a 2°C increase, indicates a nearly 5-fold rise in heatwave exposure for individuals over 65 by mid-century, underscoring the dire consequences if mitigation efforts are not implemented urgently.
The report has also raised concerns regarding the health impacts of air pollution, attributing increasing deaths to small particulate matter (PM2.5) generated from human activities. Transitioning to renewable energy sources is identified as a crucial step to mitigate air pollution, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and promote universal, affordable, and clean energy.
As India participates in the Dubai Climate Summit, these findings should serve as eyeopener and add a sense of urgency among the developed nations to discussions around climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies to tackle the shared challenges posed by a changing climate.
With the health sector grappling with unprecedented challenges, it is imperative to address the glaring disparity in financial support.
In fact, the current allocation of a mere 0.5% of global climate financing to the health sector is inadequate to meet the demands and complexities of the health challenges posed by climate change. A substantial increase in resources for the health sector is not only warranted but deemed essential.
Adequate funding is crucial for the development and implementation of strategies to address climate-related health impacts, including extreme weather events, infectious diseases, and other health crises.
The ongoing global health crisis, likely exacerbated by climate change, underscores the interconnectedness of health and environmental issues.
A robust and well-funded health sector is crucial for effectively responding to both the immediate health crisis and the long-term impacts of climate change on public health.
Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General: Prioritizing health is not just a choice; it is the foundation of resilient societies. We must change the conversation and demonstrate the massive benefits of bolder climate action on our health and well-being.
Dr Mansukh Mandaviya, Union Health Minister: The effects of climate change is the biggest threat that humanity is currently facing and it is having an immense impact on health systems...We commit to prioritising climate-resilient health systems...
Sunita Narain, CSE Director General: Our recent report attempts to build an evidence base on the frequency and expanding geography of extreme weather events in the country. This assessment clearly shows, what the country has witnessed so far in 2023 is the new 'abnormal' in a warming world.
Dr Vikramjeet Singh, Senior Consultant, Internal Medicine, Aakash Healthcare, Delhi: The evolving landscape of climate change significantly raises concerns about its direct and indirect impacts on respiratory health. Rise in temperatures contributes to the proliferation of air pollutants, such as particulate matter and ground-level ozone causing asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Increased heat can also lead to the intensification of allergenic pollen production, triggering allergic respiratory responses.Dehydration and heat stress too can cause respiratory distress, placing an additional burden on healthcare system.
Colloborative efforts are essential to address adaptation measures to meet the health challenges linked with changing climate
Dr Kavita Singh, DNDi: Climate change is altering patterns for dengue fever and other diseases. Before, we didn’t have as many cases, or as many deaths…More R&D and investment is needed to combat these diseases so as to benefit the entire world, not just the countries that currently suffer from them.
The writer is Associate Editor, The Pioneer