Health risks of climate change ‘earliest, most severe’ for Pacific – WHO

Forty three Fijian villages "under threat from sea level rise and may need to be moved to higher ground". Image: Pacific Rising

By Kendall Hutt in Auckland 

Loss of sea ice, accelerated sea level rise, and longer, more intense heat waves. The observable effects of climate change on the environment are well documented and continue to make headlines.

But climate change also carries serious and fatal risks to human health.

“Under climate change conditions, the health and safety of humans are as vulnerable, eventually if not immediately,” the World Health Organisation (WHO) notes.

With rates of Type 2 diabetes and obesity among the highest levels in the world, the health of Pacific island communities in the face of climate change is grim.

In its 2015 report ‘Human health and climate change in Pacific island countries’ the WHO’s Western Pacific Region notes:

“The Pacific will experience some of the earliest and most severe impacts of climate change.

“These effects will include detrimental impacts on various aspects of human health and development.”

This is due to the fact climate change is regarded as a “health risk multiplier”. Put in simpler terms, climate change acts as a trigger and amplifier of pre-existing health risks.

For the Pacific, these include vector-borne (mosquito and tick), waterborne and foodborne diseases, injuries and deaths as a result of extreme weather events, and compromised food security and malnutrition.

‘Highest priority’
These health risks are also regarded by Pacific Island countries as the “highest priority” to be addressed in health adaptation strategies.

Seia Mikaele Maiava, an organic farmer from Nukunonu, Tokelau, and a 350 Pacific Climate Warrior told Asia Pacific Report:

“Impact of climate to food security is growing in the Pacific. Islands like Tokelau, Kiribati and Tuvalu have salt water intrusion into their soil from rising sea water levels.

Farmers like Amelia Vua from Korolevu, Navosa, Fiji … see crops affected by climate change. Image: Kendall Hutt/PMC

“This brings a huge challenge in planting their crops, therefore people will depend on imported foods that are unhealthy.”

Maiava said the salinisation of food crops was leading people to become dependent on imported “high fatty” and sugary food, increasing non-communicable diseases (NCD’s) such as diabetes.

Speaking to Asia Pacific Report from Samoa, Viliamu Iese, a research fellow in climate change, food security, and disaster risk management with the University of the South Pacific’s Centre for Environment and Sustainable Development, said the impact of climate change on food production was strong.

“It reduces access to food, increases malnutrition and reliance on imported processed foods, therefore increasing the risks of NCDs,” he said.

‘Killed the crops’
Maiava and Iese’s statements have been echoed by young journalism student Semi Malaki of Tuvalu, who told the Bearing Witness project: “With the impact of salt water intrusion and sea level rise, the salt water came up and killed the crops.

Salination of crops .. new dependence on unhealthy, imported foods. Image: Kendall Hutt/PMC

“People now are not much dependent on root crops, they’re dependent on imported foods from overseas and its had lots of impact on our diets.”

This phenomenon is sometimes known as “over-nutrition” and the Asian Development Bank regards climate-induced changes in food supply as one of the major risks posed by climate change on human health.

“Climate change in the Pacific will have both direct and indirect effects on food security.

“The most direct effect, particularly in the smaller atoll countries, will be further reduction of already declining output per capita as a result of increasing natural disasters and rising sea level in the longer term.”

The WHO notes in its report: “Many participants in the vulnerability assessment and adaptation planning process around the Pacific were firm in their belief that climate change would lead to a worsening of the NCD crisis.”

Though the situation may appear grim, it does not mean Pacific Island countries are not adapting and mitigating to the health impacts of climate change.

‘We are fighting’
Although health adaptation finance may be a problem – climate change impacts on health only serve three percent of current adaptation funding targets according to the WHO – the Pacific has continued its “we are fighting” approach to climate change.

“Throughout their history, Pacific communities have long demonstrated a high degree of resilience to environmental challenges,” the WHO stated.

The Pacific’s national adaptation programmes of action, assessed in the WHO’s report, provide clear pathways for effective adaptation and mitigation.

Maiava also said people in the Pacific were becoming more aware and using innovative ideas to grow healthy, organic food.

“Many people are doing good work to raise awareness of growing your own food and eating healthy. I am part of good organisations doing this. Also, we have a keyhole garden project happening in Tokelau that will help each family to grow their own food,” he said.

The WHO notes that as early as the 1990’s “The health impacts of climate change had been given some consideration in many Pacific Island countries and areas as part of their early work on climate change adaptation, even before these policy documents that specifically address the health impacts of climate change were adopted by the health sector in the region.”

Such praise comes despite the unprecedented rate, scale and impact of climate change in modern human history.

World support needed
However, the WHO notes “whole-of-government” and “whole-of-society” approaches are needed to address climate-sensitive health risks.

With COP23 fast-approaching, it is clear whole-of-world support will be needed to address the human cost of climate change.

Children, the elderly and disabled … most vulnerable to climate change amplified health risks. Image: Kendall Hutt/PMC
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SOURCEPacific Media Centre
Kendall Hutt is Pacific Media Watch freedom project contributing editor 2017. A graduate journalist from Auckland University of Technology, she also completed her Honours year in Communication Studies. Kendall was on the Pacific Media Centre's 2016 Asia-Pacific Journalism Studies course. Kendall is interested in political and climate change journalism, and runs her own television and film review blog. In December 2017, Kendall took up a job with the North Shore Times.