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COP27: Africa must take seriously the impact of climate change on health

In many African countries, climate change is yet to be incorporated into public health interventions.

In Africa, health emergencies related to climate change are on the rise and account for over 50% of public health events recorded in the region over the last 20 years. This is quite unfortunate as our continent contributes the least to global warming yet it bears most of the consequences. As African leaders attend COP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, the question is, are African governments doing enough to address the existing and inevitable health challenges being brought about or further exacerbated by climate change? The answer is no.

In many African countries, climate change is yet to be incorporated into public health interventions and governments are not upskilling their countries’ healthcare professionals to be able to deal with climate change. In fact, there is a severe deficit of all aspects of preparedness to effectively address the impacts of climate change, including in the health sector.

This issue is compounded by the fact that there is a weak health infrastructure that is already unable to cope with the needs of the population. Not enough hospitals and healthcare centres are being constructed, particularly in remote rural areas where the most vulnerable amongst us live. Evidently, resources for health systems are not being made available by our leaders to effectively respond to the increasing prevalence of diseases (both communicable and non-communicable) and other uncertainties despite the fact that the 2001 Abuja Declaration urged member states of the African Union to allocate “at least 15%” of national budgets to the health sector. Unfortunately, government spending on health, as a proportion of overall spending, decreased in 21 African countries between 2001 and 2015 and only 2 out of 55 countries met the Abuja declaration target in 2018. How then can we expect to methodically and proactively prepare for current and future climate change health hazards?

Our governments are not improving on climate change coping and adaptation strategies, and this has negatively impacted health outcomes. Indeed, Africa is grappling with significant health hazards that are related to climatic shocks such as malnutrition and hunger due to adverse weather on agricultural production and food security. This is mainly due to the fact that inadequate funding is being channelled to climate change adaptation and mitigation strategies. Notably, there are limited investments into irrigation projects, water storage, and climate resistant crops that can withstand extreme weather conditions.

Although I lament the current state of affairs and our countries’ leadership (or rather the lack thereof when it comes to climate change and its impact on health), I am somewhat encouraged by and commend the efforts of the African Development Bank (AfDB) and the African Union Development Agency New Partnership for Africa’s Development (AUDA-NEPAD). Among other activities, the former is leading climate adaptation and has been supporting the continent by doubling its financing for climate to US$25 billion by 2025 whereas the latter collaborated with the Global Restoration Initiative on the Africa Forest Restoration Initiative (AFR100). AFR100 is Africa’s flagship landscape restoration programme that aims to restore 100 million hectares of degraded forest landscape by 2030. However, more needs to be done.

Firstly, we need to take climate change more seriously as it affects us all. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded that to prevent catastrophic health impacts and millions of deaths related to climate change, the world should limit temperature rise to 1.5°C. As Africans, we therefore need to implement policies and make individual choices that can minimise greenhouse gas emissions and result in considerable health co-benefits. We have the capacity to positively contribute to solving the global climate crisis. Our continent is home to the world’s second largest rainforest, the Congo Basin, which is important to stabilising the world’s climate as it absorbs 1.2 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide annually. It is a precious resource that we must protect at all costs along with all of our other forests and landscapes.

In addition, our Ministries of Health must improve understanding and monitor climate change risks and impacts on health, as well as implement National Adaption Plans in line with the Paris Agreement.

However, in our endeavours to meet the global emission reduction targets, I believe that it is important that we do so without constraining the development of the African continent. For any economy to industrialise, large scale power projects are needed along with investments from development finance institutions. These development finance institutions should not prevent economies that are interested in a variety of energy sources to increase their access and build resilience into their power infrastructure as this essentially denies certain countries the means to eradicate the levels of poverty they grapple with, which inevitably affects health outcomes on the continent.

Moreover, as a matter of equity, the United States, China and the European Union, who emit over 40% of the total greenhouse gases, should have higher emission reduction requirements imposed on them as we transition to green energy. From my standpoint, proportionate responsibility will ease the burden on countries that still require an array of power generation methods to increase access to energy. This would in turn allow our governments to channel more resources to other sectors, including the health sector.

Lastly, we need to normalise cycling and walking as alternatives to private vehicle use in order to reduce our carbon footprint, the burden of household air pollution, and ambient air pollution. All of this alongside physical activity would significantly improve health outcomes.

The onus is on us to protect our continent and its resources, the most precious ones being human resources.

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