The UN 2020 Water and Climate Change report recommends immediate coordinated action that draws on the principles of the ‘One Health’ approach, which considers humans, animals, and ecosystems in its public health interventions. The report stresses the importance of the government and healthcare sector factoring in water and sanitation in healthcare policies. Through the Paris Agreement, the international community has provided mandates for stronger action to protect human health from climate risks. Mitigation efforts that prevent global temperatures from increasing by 2ºC are also important, especially to prevent the spread of diseases that thrive in warmer temperatures.
Trends in water-related morbidity and mortality
Ensuring access to safe water and sanitation will not only improve quality of life for millions, but also realize the human right to water. To achieve water access for all, there needs to be better management of water resources to prevent the spread of disease, such as making sure bodies of freshwater are not polluted and that the food production sector has adequate access to safe water.
Around the world, nearly two million preventable deaths occur because of inadequate water and sanitation, with most of these preventable deaths are happening to children under the age of five. Mortality associated with water- and sanitation-related diseases is decreasing, but not quickly enough. The burden of these illnesses and death fall on women and girls, who lose opportunities for work and education due to water collection tasks and have difficulties in menstrual hygiene management.
Health risks associated with climate change
Climate change is already impacting human health, but it is disproportionately impacting the poorest and most vulnerable populations, which is why climate change is considered to be a poverty multiplier. There are direct, indirect, and mental health water-related impacts from climate change. Direct impacts include physiological effects from exposure to high temperatures, increase in respiratory diseases, and death or injury from extreme weather events. Indirect effects include those caused by ecological changes, such as water insecurity because of drought. Mental health impacts include stress from loss of culture, loss of a way of life, and more.
Additionally, climate change is undermining the progress made on safe water and sanitation management that is supposed to prevent these water-related health risks from happening. In some regions, cases or diarrhea are expected to increase to 10% by 2030 because of diseases spread by climate change. Existing water and sanitation infrastructure is also at risk of being damaged by extreme weather events like floods, which will worsen water and sanitation quality.
Increased temperatures will affect water availability and food production, so another major concern is undernutrition, which the report anticipates to be “one of the greatest threats to health resulting from climate change.” The report predicts that 540-590 million people, particularly children and the elderly, will be undernourished if global temperatures warm by 2ºC.
Water supply and response options
Adapting water and sanitation infrastructure so they make room for resilience is of the utmost importance. The following six components of health systems should be considered when adapting infrastructure: policy and policy and governance, financing, service delivery, technologies and infrastructure, workforce, and information systems. Other measures including data collection, disaster response and rehabilitation, and behavior change programs can also be effective in adapting to climate change.
Just as the water and sanitation sector should take health into account, the health sector should take water and sanitation into account. Specifically, the healthcare sector should ensure that water- and sanitation-related climate risks are factored into their healthcare policies.
Written by: Gari De Ramos, DSH former intern