Dispatch

A health response to climate change

27 August 2015

The relocation of villages as rising sea levels spoil crops among other things, has begun for several countries across the region including Fiji. In Tuvalu, the devastation caused by Cyclone Pam in March is still being talked about and for the Federated States of Micronesia, March marked the evacuation of about 1000 people on Majuro and 250 in the Arno Atoll: forced to flee massive king tides.

Outside the region, June marked the death of 2500 people in India and 2000 in Pakistan, from heatwaves. Such extreme events among others were indeed predicted in the inter-governmental panel on climate change (IPCC) fourth assessment report in 2007.

 

It is perhaps the reason response activities to the impact of climate change has largely been (physical) environment-centered, making issues like maternal health or family planning a lot more abstract and difficult to tie into the discourse around climate change impacts.

A pertinent question that perhaps needs to be asked more frequently as we navigate through the sea of climate change-related responses is whether humanity's health vulnerabilities are being adequately addressed? This is what the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) means when it encourages people-centered approaches.

A fifth IPCC assessment report has since been released; Working group II and working group III of the IPCC actually had a Pacific launch of its report at the University of the South Pacific in May 2014. In terms of adaptation options for our Pacific nations, a project involving UN agencies and the Fiji Government's Ministry for Health, in relation to climate change-sensitive diseases, has been successfully concluded.

It is a given that we all are experiencing or will indeed experience the impact of climate change in our lives one way or another though some linkages may still be too abstract for better appreciation; suffice to say, the assumption that economic growth is a prerequisite for a population's health needs to be revisited.

Good population health in itself has to be considered essential for economic growth: the sustainability of any socioeconomic development will depend on a population base that is healthy and has an enabling environment for consultative, inclusive and non-discriminatory socioeconomic progress.

When considered in this context, it is affirming for UNFPA which argues that if as individuals, one is assured of sexual and reproductive health (a physical, emotional, mental and social level of wellbeing to have a pleasurable and safe sexual experience free of coercion, discrimination and violence) and lived reproductive rights (when all persons and couples can freely and responsibly make decisions on the number of children they want, their timing and spacing and they have the information and the means to do so) then we can deliver a future where every pregnancy is wanted, all childbirth is safe and every young person's potential is fulfilled.

An example of lived reproductive rights is when a woman can decide if she wants to have children or when she can have the next child; or we can continue business as usual and perpetuate the global reality of 800 women dying from pregnancy or childbirth complications daily.

Another lived reproductive right is ending the societal scourge of girls becoming mothers when they themselves are still children: or we could reverse current global statistics of 70,000 adolescent deaths from pregnancy and childbirth complications annually.

"If we began with doing sexual and reproductive health and rights correctly and thereby build the foundation of good population health then we are addressing as well the resilient population our Pacific nations will need, particularly when faced with the impact of climate change which will bring with it humanitarian situations," Dr Laurent said.

United Nations member states are responding in various ways to the imminent impacts of climate change according to their national priorities, work to which development agencies like the UNFPA contribute.

On International Youth Day (August 12) this year for example, Tuvalu launched a youth policy, borne out of a collaboration with the UNFPA, as youth is a core mandate area for the organisation. The policy has six components - career pathways, governance, wellbeing, peace-building, sustainable development and (youth) mainstreaming.

While the pillars are inextricably linked, there are specifications like the promotion of healthy families, equitable accessibility to health services and the development of positive health programs and activities with among others, a focus on sexual and reproductive health - which are critical components of responding to the impact of climate change albeit abstract.

For a resilient population, apart from beginning with good health particularly in terms of maternal health and family planning, placing young people at the centre of development is crucial for sustainability.

"We have been privileged as an organisation to work with Tuvalu's youth," Dr Laurent Zessler, UNFPA Pacific sub-regional office director and representative said.

"The youth policy is a sign of the government's intentions of making good their commitment to regional frameworks like the S.A.M.O.A Pathway, which also specifies sexual and reproductive health and rights.

"We must focus on young people's potential and invest in it, without prejudice or being judgmental."

A starting point could probably be questioning more frequently the level of people-centeredness of our response to the impact of climate change.