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The Need for Climate Change Resilience

A version of this post originally appeared on the Nikkei Asian Review.

Photo credit: Jonas Bendiksen
Photo credit: Jonas Bendiksen

“Climate change creates unique public health challenges that impact communities in the developing world.”

Temperature, precipitation, and humidity variations can exacerbate chronic stresses such as drought or contribute to weather shocks such as larger and more frequent typhoons. These, in turn, can have serious implications for human health.

Increasingly, these factors are driving new and unpredictable patterns in the spread of common water and vector-borne diseases, with conventional protocols for monitoring and managing them under increasing strain.

Despite these significant challenges, the link between climate change resilience and global health receives far too little attention. But experts across a diverse range of fields will meet August 27-29 in Geneva for the World Health Organization Conference on Health and Climate to provide guidance on policy efforts to reinforce climate-resilient health systems and to develop health-promoting climate change mitigation strategies.

We cannot prevent all of the shocks and stresses associated with climate change, but we can come together as cities, national governments, nongovernmental organizations, and researchers to share data and learn on how to make our health systems more responsive, flexible, and ultimately resilient. It is essential that we build on the conversations to be held in Geneva and push policymakers to work in collaboration with experts throughout the world to put this issue center stage.

The Rockefeller Foundation has pioneered a series of interventions through the Asian Cities Climate Change Resilience Network (ACCCRN) that has the potential to improve the lives of millions of households living in Asia’s fast-growing urban centers. The initiative—which engages communities, local governments, and NGOs—aims to catalyze attention, funding, and action through a diverse set of resilience-building projects, including public health initiatives. With greater capacity and more coordination, decision-makers at the local and national level, together with other stakeholders, can ensure that individuals and communities can prevent, respond rapidly to, and bounce back from public health challenges.

In the cities of Surat, India; Semarang, Indonesia; and Can Tho, Vietnam, the pattern of dengue fever cases has become far less predictable or confined to a particular season, and the bacterial disease leptospirosis has reemerged as a critical health problem. Increased rainfall, higher temperatures, and poor drainage has resulted in more stagnant water, contributing to the spread of these diseases.

ACCCRN projects have made tangible progress in building new collaboration between climate and public health experts to introduce protocols, capacities and technologies to respond to these shifting dynamics. Innovative surveillance and information systems that engage local communities have been introduced, for example, with the use of mobile phone applications to promote more rapid community-based reporting systems.

As phones have become more ubiquitous, they have become a powerful tool for local people to provide accurate, real-time information on numerous issues, from disease outbreaks, to the status of waste, drainage, and sewer systems. In Surat, the number of leptospirosis cases, which had been increasing over the last decade, has decreased for the first time as a result of the introduction of these monitoring mechanisms.

These projects are also building new forms of institutional resilience, with better coordination across departmental silos. For example, local authorities can alert health agencies and national governments as soon as they see sudden rises in dengue fever infections in the aftermath of a flood. Health departments, local governments, and disaster management authorities can work together to communicate and respond immediately to those affected, to contain the breeding of mosquito larvae and to avert crises.

Easily implemented preventative measures and systems to provide disease monitoring data can help individuals make small daily changes that add up to big results. As we contend with the unpredictable forces of climate change and rapid urbanization, these kinds of shifts are going to be an essential part of our public health approach.

The WHO Conference on Health and Climate marks an opportunity to push policy efforts that address the growing public health pressures of climate change. Leaders can learn from past successes and apply them to their communities and in the process, new innovations and approaches can be tested.

There are effective methods for improving the health outcomes of large populations. An obstacle remains in fostering true collaboration and knowledge-sharing across the sectors that must take action to address health challenges. The Geneva conference is an important step in the right direction.

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