Human health is at the centre of climate change | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, December 01, 2010 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, December 01, 2010

Human health is at the centre of climate change

As the global community deliberates at the 16th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Cancun, Mexico, countries in South-East Asia are faced with the task of ensuring that regional concerns are addressed in discussions of the impact of climate change on human health.
Climate change strikes at the basic pillars of life -- water, food, air and the ecosystem. Island nations like Maldives, mountainous countries like Bhutan and Nepal, and countries like Bangladesh, Indonesia, India, Sri Lanka and Thailand with large populations living along the coast are most vulnerable. More frequent extreme weather events is one of the expected manifestations of climate change.
The region has in the last few years experienced cyclones, floods and heat waves that have killed thousands and left millions more homeless. In addition, climate change is expected to increase the burden of malnutrition, diarrhoea, malaria and dengue, all of which are climate-sensitive. Such effects are likely to overwhelm the already overburdened health infrastructure in the region.
The UNFCCC recognised the adverse impact of climate change on human health in 1992. It urged parties to formulate policies and actions to minimise the adverse effects on economy, public health and the quality of the environment.
Yet, 17 years later, only 1 of the 47 nations mentioned human health as a consideration in the preparatory submissions to the UNFCCC negotiations for the Copenhagen meeting in December 2009. This silence about health indicates a serious blind spot. Human health seems to be lost in the debate on climate change science, emissions targets and trading, differential responsibilities and threats to livelihoods and shelter.
The evidence is clear: climate change will directly impact human health. It is time to act now. Resources need to be channeled to support adaptation measures by the health and environment sectors. The global community needs to support efforts, technically and financially, to protect health from climate change in this region. Health research to estimate the economic impact of climate sensitive diseases on developing countries needs to be prioritised.
Countries from South-East Asia have demonstrated political will at the highest level. This is evident in the New Delhi Declaration by the health ministers from 11 countries of the region in 2008, which was reiterated more recently by a conference of regional members of parliaments at Thimphu, Bhutan, and in the Dhaka declaration by ministers and senior officers from ministries of health and environment.
But the health effects of climate change -- and the damage -- are already upon us. It is time for the countries that are most vulnerable to climate change to voice their concerns and ensure that human health becomes the central theme for climate change discussions and agreements.

Dr. Poonam Khetrapal Singh is Deputy Regional Director, WHO South-East Asia.

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