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It's timely to have a Health Day at climate talks

 The opening session of the COP28 in Dubai on November 30, 2023. [Xinhua]

A recent meeting with health and climate experts in Nairobi demonstrated how working in silos can worsen pre-existing problems.

A man told how while seeking action on a climate change issue, a senior officer in the Environment ministry referred him to the Ministry of Health, where he was returned to his sender. He had to bring people from the two ministries together to solve the problem.

It is easy to look at climate change as an environment-only problem. With the El Nino rains, cholera and other diseases are a threat in flooded areas. Roads and social amenities have been destroyed. It is difficult to take food and other aid to the affected. The displaced people include those who may miss out on crucial reproductive health services, ARVs or TB and other ailments’ drugs, as they deal with pressures of new environments after displacement.  

Gladly, for the first time, the annual global climate talks, this time called COP28, which began on Thursday in Dubai, will have a Health Day. The talks had also been labelled the Loss and Damage COP, after COP27 delivered establishment of the fund in Egypt. This first Health Day tomorrow is not only timely but should also send a message that health implications of climate change are more serious. In June 2022, and echoing an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, World Health Organisation stated in a policy brief how climate change worsened emotional distress, depression, anxiety, suicidal behaviours and grief. For that reason alone, the Loss and Damage Fund should be operationalised faster to benefit victims.

And while nations work locally to strengthen institutions and break barriers between ministries that tackle health, climate change, agriculture, transport, education, the blue economy, and others, and be intentional about solving the earth’s problems, the global pedestal must implement suggested solutions faster.

East Africa experienced one of its worst prolonged drought in 40 years between 2020 and 2023 alone. This in a region where more than 75 per cent of food comes from small-scale farmers. Besides food scarcity, people were affected economically and their nutritional levels threatened. Today, with the economy as tough as it is, losing livestock in floods is not just an economic loss but a damage, sometimes through invisible mental health implications. Health and climate change are conjoined.

Discussing climate change and its impacts on human health, plus what can be done to avert more harm must also include grassroots voices, for these people who do not make it to the COPs have a wealth of indigenous knowledge on locally available solutions to their unique problems.

According to a UNICEF report published last May, more than 7 million children aged below five years were malnourished in Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia. And now with mosquitoes getting more comfortable in the highlands, the risks for populations whose immune systems lack necessary defence contracting malaria are higher. The climate crisis is a health crisis. Though it has opportunities, it is also in Africa that that climate change snatches people’s dignity, rendering them beggars and destitute.

There are opportunities to combine efforts to tackle health and climate problems. Efforts to mitigate climate change must not slow down. The push for end to new fossil fuel projects in Africa must continue, as planting trees alone will not stop effects of climate change. Pollution, biodiversity loss and climate change all cause health problems. Climate change does not change people’s need to eat or live healthy. So does the Earth need concerted multifaceted efforts to stay and keep us all alive. This is why partnership is SDG 17.

The writer advocates for climate justice. [email protected]

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