New Delhi: We are well acquainted with the fact that climate change is a significant threat to human health. India’s National Health Portal (NHP) states that climate change is predicted to result in an additional 250,000 deaths each year from hunger, malaria, diarrhoea, and heat stress between 2030 and 2050. In the Lancet Report, an India-specific factsheet has found that Aedes aegypti mosquitoes are capable of transmitting dengue for 5.6 months throughout the year, rising 1.69 per cent between 1951-1960 and 2012-2021. On 15 May 2022, parts of Delhi recorded a temperature of 49.2 degrees. With every 1.5°C warming, 350 million more people could be exposed to deadly heat stress by 2050.
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The evidence of the threat of climate change is exceedingly large. Scientists first warned us about climate change in the 1950s when the tip of the iceberg started melting. However, the climate crisis is not the defining issue of this moment – it was – because we are experiencing the consequences now. What is even more alarming is that people across the globe don’t experience these consequences uniformly. The truth is that climate change disproportionately impacts marginalised communities. The report “Shock Waves: Managing the Impacts of Climate Change on Poverty” by the World Bank warns us that the climate crisis is a real threat to eradicating poverty. Thus, without any action, climate change could result in more than 100 million additional people living in poverty by 2030. For any climate action against the global systems of inequality, we must look at the social determinants of climate change. Worldwide, indigenous and tribal groups, people living with disabilities, children, farmers, street vendors, labourers, sexual and gender minorities, senior citizens, and other marginalised groups are particularly vulnerable to climate crises. The cause of their vulnerability is a combination of their socioeconomic, gender, racial, ethnic, geographical, and cultural status; their access to basic resources, education, services, justice, and agency is also lacking. Applying an intersectionality lens is the guiding principle to reading vulnerability. Intersectionality also gives us a nuanced picture of the specific context of a group of people, their power to negotiate, and the challenges they are up against.
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Interestingly, these marginalised groups face the “triple injustice” of climate change. Though they are the lowest contributors to greenhouse emissions, their lack of access to resources makes them incapable of coping with the effects of climate change. This double injustice becomes a triple injustice when the cost of green transition negatively impacts vulnerable groups, like being disproportionately displaced due to green infrastructure and climate adaptation projects. This augments existing social inequities and renders marginalised populations susceptible to the health consequences of climate change.
Health systems have historically not been set up to be climate resilient. Consequently, these systems are now overwhelmed and need help to serve those most in need of quality healthcare. For example – due to extreme weather conditions, floods become more common and exacerbate water-borne diseases like dengue, diarrhoea, malaria, and cholera. The sudden spike in such diseases ends up overwhelming the health systems.
The impact of the climate crisis on human health is not an isolated incident but a global phenomenon. Climate change and unpredictability directly affect the ecosystem, food and nutrition security, health, and other areas essential to human existence and well-being. India has the second largest tribal population in the world, constituting 8.9% of the total population. One such tribe experiencing the direct impact of climate change is the Warli tribe – an Indian scheduled tribe residing on the outskirts of Mumbai, Maharashtra. The Warli tribe share historical, cultural and physical connections with the environment. They greatly respect nature and wildlife for the resources provided for life. Their main occupation, agriculture, is in grave danger due to the long-term shifting temperatures and weather patterns. Rainwater has washed away villages and cities where the Warli population resides, leading to a massive loss of life. Moreover, during summer, the tribe also faces extreme water scarcity as the wells dry. The Warli tribe has also been facing the problem of drought regularly, which has deteriorated their health and spread diseases. These vulnerabilities precipitate undernourishment or even starvation – preventing them and their families from living healthier lives.
The Global Food Policy 2022 report has warned that climate change may push 90 million Indians towards hunger by 2030. As per the data given by India’s Ministry of Agriculture, 40% of agricultural land is dependent on rain, which is now experiencing extreme variations. Reliable sources of irrigation are also hard to come by. Marginalised groups like the Warli tribe end up bearing the brunt of this crisis. A systematic response to this public health crisis must address the root cause of the issue, which is climate change. Therefore, we need a shift of focus to climate adaptation and mitigation.
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Universal Health Coverage (UHC) is a key adaptation strategy since it mitigates the adverse effects of climate change on human health. UHC means that everyone has access to the full range of high-quality health services they require, regardless of their financial situation, whenever and wherever they require them. Climate mitigations must be rapid and inclusive to address the marginalised groups’ needs. We need data to identify the most vulnerable, how they get the care and how adaptation interventions from the public health infrastructure can best protect them. Furthermore, health systems have to be climate resilient. Bolstering the capacities of the health workforce with appropriate awareness of local climate health is essential for increasing their adaptability. Investments in research on health and climate change vulnerability will help push for innovative health technologies.
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We must use this opportunity of transforming our health systems and act now. The risks of climate change on the marginalised keep accelerating. We need to address the social inequity of climate change. Inclusive climate action mitigation will bring positive gains to communities and help marginalised groups live healthier lives.
(This article has been authored by Harshita Agarwal, Communications Catalyst at Swasti, The Health Catalyst.)
Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.
NDTV – Dettol have been working towards a clean and healthy India since 2014 via the Banega Swachh India initiative, which is helmed by Campaign Ambassador Amitabh Bachchan. The campaign aims to highlight the inter-dependency of humans and the environment, and of humans on one another with the focus on One Health, One Planet, One Future – Leaving No One Behind. It stresses on the need to take care of, and consider, everyone’s health in India – especially vulnerable communities – the LGBTQ population, indigenous people, India’s different tribes, ethnic and linguistic minorities, people with disabilities, migrants, geographically remote populations, gender and sexual minorities. In wake of the current COVID-19 pandemic, the need for WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) is reaffirmed as handwashing is one of the ways to prevent Coronavirus infection and other diseases. The campaign will continue to raise awareness on the same along with focussing on the importance of nutrition and healthcare for women and children, fight malnutrition, mental wellbeing, self care, science and health, adolescent health & gender awareness. Along with the health of people, the campaign has realised the need to also take care of the health of the eco-system. Our environment is fragile due to human activity, which is not only over-exploiting available resources, but also generating immense pollution as a result of using and extracting those resources. The imbalance has also led to immense biodiversity loss that has caused one of the biggest threats to human survival – climate change. It has now been described as a “code red for humanity.” The campaign will continue to cover issues like air pollution, waste management, plastic ban, manual scavenging and sanitation workers and menstrual hygiene. Banega Swasth India will also be taking forward the dream of Swasth Bharat, the campaign feels that only a Swachh or clean India where toilets are used and open defecation free (ODF) status achieved as part of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014, can eradicate diseases like diahorrea and the country can become a Swasth or healthy India.