Climate change is a ticking clock for global health

As the planet warms due to the increasing concentration of greenhouse gases, we are witnessing a cascade of events that pose direct threats to our well-being and survival.
Last Updated 30 March 2024, 22:17 IST

Sunita, a 45-year-old farmer, lives in a small village in the state of Rajasthan. Known for its arid landscape, Rajasthan has been grappling with the harsh realities of climate change more acutely in recent years. Sunita’s family has farmed the land for generations, relying on monsoon rains to cultivate crops such as millets, pulses, and vegetables. 

In the past decade, Sunita has observed a worrying trend: the monsoons are becoming increasingly erratic. The temperature extremes have become more pronounced, with scorching summers making it almost impossible to work in the fields during the day, putting workers at risk for heat stroke, heat exhaustion, severe dehydration and kidney dysfunction. There have been years of scant rainfall, leading to severe droughts, while at other times, unexpected heavy rains have flooded her fields, destroying crops and eroding the soil. Contaminated water sources, exacerbated by floods, have become breeding grounds for pathogens, putting the community at higher risk of water-borne diseases like cholera and diarrhoea.

The changes in temperature and precipitation patterns are also increasing the incidence of diseases like malaria and dengue in Sunita’s region. The impact of these changes on Sunita’s life has been profound. The unpredictability of the
weather has not only made it difficult to plan the planting seasons but has also led to a significant decrease in crop yield and diversity, impacting food security in the community due to malnutrition and deficiencies in essential nutrients, thereby increasing their vulnerabilities to disease. The financial strain on her family affects her ability to afford education and healthcare for her children. She experiences stress, anxiety and depression due to the loss of crops, income and livelihood. Furthermore, a scarcity of water has heightened tensions in the community, with competition over dwindling resources leading to conflicts. A single extreme weather event in their village can wipe out their access to healthcare services, making it even more challenging for Sunita to cope with the health impacts of climate change.

In a world where the conversation around climate change often centres on environmental degradation and economic impacts, the profound effect on human health is a story that demands attention. As the planet warms due to the increasing concentration of greenhouse gases, we are witnessing a cascade of events that pose direct threats to our well-being and survival.

Global temperatures are on the rise, leading to melting ice caps, rising sea levels, and a dramatic shift in weather patterns. This new climate reality ushers in an era of extreme weather events — from scorching heatwaves and bitter cold spells to devastating floods and wildfires. Each event carries with it a heavy toll on human health, challenging health systems worldwide. The impacts of climate change on health are far-reaching. Clean air, safe drinking water, food supplies, and secure shelter — the essential pillars of human health — are under siege.

In India, water-borne diseases flourish in the wake of flooding, while altered weather patterns boost the spread of deadly vector-borne diseases. Extreme temperatures not only exacerbate chronic health conditions but also threaten food security by impacting agricultural productivity. The climate crisis is hitting our food systems hard. Shifts in environmental conditions are diminishing the quality and quantity of crops, leading to increased malnutrition and related health issues. The projection of declining agricultural output alongside a rising food demand paints a grim picture for future food security.

The threat extends beyond physical ailments. The emergence of diseases like Covid-19 has highlighted the intricate link between our environment and health, underscoring the urgency of climate action. India, ranked as the seventh most vulnerable nation to climate change, faces a multifaceted challenge in safeguarding the health of its citizens.

Climate change is reshaping the landscape of vector-borne and zoonotic diseases, enabling their spread into new territories. The warmer climate facilitates the breeding of disease-carrying vectors, while human encroachment into natural habitats raises the risk of diseases jumping from animals to humans.

With a significant portion of India’s water supply contaminated, the nation faces a dual challenge of water scarcity and water-borne diseases. This crisis is exacerbated by climate-induced droughts and floods, leading to a vicious cycle of health risks and resource depletion.

India’s vulnerability to cyclones, floods, and other natural disasters has been magnified by climate change, resulting in staggering economic losses and a devastating number of casualties. These events not only destroy livelihoods but also place immense strain on healthcare resources.

The increase in frequency and intensity of heatwaves represents an invisible but deadly risk, claiming thousands of lives and increasing the incidence of heat-related illnesses. Effective public health strategies, including early warning systems, are critical to mitigate this threat. The psychological impact of climate change is profound, with increased incidences of anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues as individuals grapple with the effects of extreme weather events and uncertainty about the future.

The burden of climate change does not fall equally, with vulnerable populations — women, children, older adults, and those with disabilities — bearing the brunt of its impacts. These groups face heightened risks and require targeted interventions to safeguard their health and well-being.

Sunita continues to face the realities of climate change; she has formed a cooperative with other farmers to share resources and knowledge, adopting new farming techniques and fostering a sense of solidarity and mutual support. Her story underscores the importance of local solutions and community action in addressing global challenges. However, it also highlights the urgent need for broader support and action from governments and international organisations to provide communities with the tools, knowledge, and resources they need to adapt to an increasingly unpredictable climate.

As the clock ticks, the narrative of climate change as solely an environmental issue must shift to recognise its immediate and pressing effects on human health.

The stories of those affected by climate-induced health crises are not just warnings; they are a call to action for policymakers, communities, and individuals to come together in the fight against climate change. Only through collective efforts can we hope to protect our health and secure a sustainable future for the planet.

(Dr Alexander Thomas is the Chair of the Health and Environment Leadership Platform (HELP) and Divya Alexander is a research and public policy consultant who  works on climate change-focused policy and advocacy for the health sector in India. They have published a book titled Climate Change and the Health Sector: Healing the World (Routledge, 2021) edited by Alexander Thomas, K Srinath Reddy, Divya Alexander and Poornima Prabhakaran, which is available to buy on Amazon and to
download on open access at https://doi.org/10.4324/9781003190516)

(Published 30 March 2024, 22:17 IST)

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