Nature rejuvenation is key for ‘Health for all’
By Dr Indira Khurana*
April 7, 2023, celebrated as World Health Day marks 75 years of the World Health Organisation (WHO). This year the theme is ‘Health for all.’ Coming on the heels of World Water Day (March 22 and the UN World Water Conference) this day is a good occasion to review how climate change is affecting human health and causing disasters which in turn is affecting human health.
Climate change challenges the social and environmental determinants of health, namely clean air, safe drinking water, sufficient food and secure shelter, and is rapidly emerging as a multifaceted challenge affecting economies, lives, livelihoods, human health and the social fabric. The direct damage costs to health (excluding costs in health-determining sectors such as agriculture and water and sanitation), are estimated to be between USD 2-4 billion/year by 2030. Between 2030 and 2050, climate change is expected to cause approximately 250,000 additional deaths per year, from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhoea and heat stress. These figures do not consider the new diseases that could and in all probability, would emerge.
Climate change, drought, flood and disease
The world today faces a serious water crisis, due to our irreverent approach towards water resources. Rivers are drying, groundwater is depleting, and water resources are polluted. Most climate change disasters – drought, flood and cyclones, cloud bursts – are water-related and often inter-generational. Climate change has added to the increase in area, duration, frequency and intensity of drought and flood. These disasters push back social and economic progress by several years and often trap people into an unending downward spiral of poverty and poor health. For example,
- Drought restricts access to nutritious food and clean water, increasing susceptibility to malnutrition and disease. Short-term effects of drought on human health include those caused by water shortages and concomitant food shortages and contaminated water. Inadequate water intake affects almost every organ of the human body. Dehydration and diarrhoea are major causes of infant mortality.
- In pregnant women, inadequate intake of calories and micronutrient malnutrition, resulting from food and mineral shortages, compromise maternal health and foetus development. Malnutrition in turn compromises the immune system, increasing susceptibility to infection. The potential long-term effects of malnutrition in utero and early childhood include stunting.
- Health impacts of floods include death, injuries, diarrhoeal, vector and rodent-borne disease, snake bites, respiratory, skin and eye infections, and epidemics. Floods also cause mental stress and affect the hygiene practices of women.
One of the biggest challenges of climate change and disasters is migration. “Migration and displacement have deep and long-lasting impacts on physical and mental health, and well-being, and cultural and linguistic differences, financial barriers, stigma and discrimination can all hamper access to health services for refugees and migrants,” Dr Tedros Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General, said.
The emergence of new disease
Seven viruses from the Siberian permafrost have been revived and replicated themselves in the lab – including the oldest revived so far. Will such ancient viruses affect plant, animal and human health?
Climate change can facilitate zoonotic spillovers and influence transmission chains. Zoonotic spillover is the process by which pathogens (e.g., SARS-CoV-2, Ebola virus, human immunodeficiency virus and avian influenza viruses) manage to overcome a series of natural barriers and infect other animal species. This spillover usually happens when the natural habitat is destroyed. Zoonotic diseases (where viruses spill over from wild animals to humans) now account for 60% of all diseases and 75% of emerging diseases, according to the Centre for Disease Control, Atlanta. Animals are often reservoirs of contagious bacteria and viruses. That means they carry bacteria or a virus, which can mutate and evolve, and humans may become infected through direct contact or indirectly through soil, water, or surfaces.
As Earth’s climate continues to warm, researchers predict that wild animals will be forced to relocate their habitats – likely to regions with large human populations – dramatically increasing the risk of a viral jump to humans that could lead to the next pandemic. Research shows that animal movements and interactions due to a warming climate might increase the number of viruses jumping between species. The likelihood of an extremely infectious disease epidemic – similar to the COVID-19 pandemic – could triple in the coming decades, according to 2021 research.
Such newly emerging diseases affect the ongoing efforts to prevent and curtail existing infections and diseases. How the COVID-19 pandemic affected childhood vaccinations is now well documented. A staggering 23 million children failed to receive childhood vaccines, the highest since 2009. Global polio immunisation coverage amongst one-year-olds in 2019 before the pandemic had reached 86 per cent, the highest ever. It has now declined to 80 per cent, the lowest global coverage since 2008.
Healing nature, healed humanity
In his address during the World Metrological Day on March 23, 2023, UN Secretary-General António Guterres stated, “It’s time to end the relentless – and senseless – war on nature.”
Destruction of nature sickens humans. The question we need to ask ourselves is: Do we want to wait for new diseases to break out and race towards developing vaccinations and medicines by bypassing acceptable protocols and equity considerations because of the ‘nature of the emergency?’ or do we want to work at the foundational level of living robust, full, secure and healthy lives, in peace and security?
The earth is wounded and needs healing. For this, nature needs to be rejuvenated. Climate change mitigation, adaptation and resilience is possible through nature rejuvenation. Scientists and economists now agree that nature’s ability to mitigate climate change is about 39 per cent more than previously estimated. Nature’s climate mitigation ability depends on its nurturing, for which water is needed. Conserving rain through ecologically and culturally appropriate methods and using it for recharge or direct use is the first step in this direction. To do this in the fastest, most appropriate, affordable and acceptable way is decentralised and ecologically driven community-centred water conservation. As water is conserved and rivers flow, greenery increases, and carbon is sequestered. Ecosystems thrive. Temperatures fall locally. Evapotranspiration leads to the formation of micro clouds that attract the larger monsoon-bearing clouds. Restoration of the local water cycle begins. Since people have been involved from the start and their wisdom is used, sources are sustainably used. As livelihoods expand, locally available and nutritious diets become a reality. Immunities rise and health improves. Nature fulfils its role as a stress buster.
This then is the way forward for ‘health for all,’, especially in a climate-impacted world.
*Dr Indira Khurana, PhD, has been working on water and natural resources for more than two decades.
1 thought on “Nature rejuvenation is key for ‘Health for all’ ”
प्रकृति के साथ, उसके अनुसार जीवनशैली बनाकर, अपना कर ही हम सहजता, सरलता, सादगी का सुखद आनंदमय जीवन जी सकते हैं।
लेख के लिए आभार धन्यवाद शुक्रिया बधाई शुभकामनाएं मुबारक हो। समस्त शुभकामनाओं सहित सादर जय जगत।
रमेश चंद शर्मा