By Nancy Saili
In recent years climate change has presented serious health risks especially in developing countries where most economies lack the ability to cope affecting mostly children, the elderly and women.
Evidence of climate change effects can be seen from increasing severe weather events, air pollution, infectious diseases, respiratory diseases and immune disorders, increasing exposure to ultraviolet radiation, population displacement and rising sea levels all caused by climate change which pose a threat to human health and security putting the future of our planet at stake.
Due to climate change impacts people stand the risk of death, injury, ill-health, food insecurity, breakdown of infrastructure, high mortality and mobility, loss of livelihoods and income. Climate change was labeled the “biggest global health threat of the 21st century” by the ULC-Lancet Commission on climate change in 2009.
The HDR summary of 2008, estimated that an additional 600 million people worldwide (9 percent of the world’s current population) may face malnutrition; an additional 1.8 billion people (more than the population of China and the USA together) may face water shortages; and an additional 220-440 million people could be exposed to malaria if we do not change our ways by 2080.
We are already aware that droughts and changes in rainfall patterns have led to drastic food shortages and losses in agricultural production; temperature rises have led to severe heat waves killing millions of people; melting glaciers have caused flooding and drying up of rivers resulting in water shortages.
According to the global climate and health alliance about 150 million people currently live in cities affected by chronic water shortages and is likely to increase to a billion by 2050 if nothing is done. Children born in a drought year are likely to be malnourished or stunted. The after-shocks of climate events also include mental health problems on victims.
It is evident that many of the drivers of climate change such as fossil fuel burning and dependence on motorized transport are not only causing damage to our environment but also pose a huge health risk to humans across the globe. In fossil fuel industries, workers risk injury or death in these work places. Approximately 7 million deaths each year are as a result of air pollution from polluting fuels.
Zambia is home to many mines. In 2011, Zambia recorded 21 fatal mine accidents. When a front loader cut fire underground about 172 miners at Mopani copper mines in Mufulira town were suffocated. On 25th September of 1970, a tailings dam collapsed causing flooding which killed 89 miners in Mufulira.
A study by the Blacksmith Institute found Kabwe (home to Broken Hill Mine, now closed) to be one of the ten worst polluted and deadliest places in the world due mostly to heavy metal (Lead, Zinc and Cadmium) tailings making their way into the local water supply.
Political leaders in developing countries argue that the fossil fuel (coal, oil & natural gas) industry is the only way we can really develop. But development should not only be measured in economic terms but should consider human development, which encompasses more than financial status.
Human development includes ensuring that in the world we live in, all human beings have the opportunity to fulfill their potential and lead healthy and happy lives. This is if they have adequate nutrition, access to decent standard of living and education.
In order to address this issue there is need for a switch to cleaner, low-carbon energy sources. The shift to renewable energies (solar, hydro, wind) is not only important in ensuring our environment is kept clean (through reduced emissions), safe and sustainable but also because it is a key step in promoting healthy living and working environments for all human kind.
It is important that we take into account the adverse effects of fossil fuels on human health. Workers in these industries are exposed to respiratory pollutants, handling chemicals in hazardous environments, catastrophic explosions, highway crashes, and suffocation.
Switching to renewable energy is very important in climate change and health as it will reduce green house gas emissions which will lead to a reduction in hospital admissions and in turn save costs for healthcare. The climate agreement in Paris this December should sufficiently address the health benefits of fighting climate change.
The health sector should be rightfully represented and consider integrating health issues in all climate change mitigation and adaptation measures, policies and strategies at all levels. According to the REN21 report renewable energy and energy efficiency are critical not only for addressing climate change, but also for creating new economic opportunities and for providing access to the billions of people still living without modern energy services.
Most countries have already set up their renewable energy targets and policies. There is need for more sustainable policy choices in sectors like transport (walking and cycling), electricity generation and household energy. Climate mitigation plans should emphasize the removing of subsidies for polluting fuels. Locally we can also act on climate change by switching to clean energy such as solar lighting, heating systems and cooking stoves. This will improve health and reduce emissions.
Zambia has much potential for electricity production due to its many sources of renewable energy especially hydro, solar and biomass which have opportunities for use such as in electrical generation, however data and technology on renewable energy resources is not readily available.
By switching to renewable energies, we will be avoiding injury and premature deaths, respiratory and cardiovascular diseases such as asthma because renewable energies use clean sources of power that do not pollute our environment.
Also renewable energies are a good way of turning the climate threat on health into a health opportunity. These opportunities include massive economic benefits, enhanced resilience, local growth, improved air quality, job opportunities, equality, stability, reduced ill health, decrease in deforestation rates, and poverty alleviation.
By working together we can not only fight climate change but also turn it into one of the most significant health opportunities for a better world.