Monday, December 6, 2010

The Dhaka Declaration

To build on some of the points made in the last post, it should be said that climate change is not just an issue of temperature. The effects of a changing climate will ripple through environmental systems and impact both ecosystems and human society in a variety of different ways. This is not just a problem for climatologists, this is a problem that will literally affect us all in one form or another.

Intergovernmental organizations such as the UN have the unenviable task of trying to solve problems that transcend borders. Most environmental problems fall into this category as physical systems rarely respect political boundaries. In this way, they are rather untidy.

While in the U.S. many people are still confused about what climate change means and if it is a real phenomenon or some tall tale authored by Al Gore, intergovernmental institutions have been worried about its effects on the most vulnerable populations around the world.

One aspect which has been largely overlooked is the ways in which climate change will impact human health. The World Health Organization (WHO) met in advance of the Cancun meetings in Dhaka, Bangladesh to discuss the ways in which a changing climate will impact the health of vulnerable populations, especially those in SE Asia. The news, while not good, is at least not surprising.

The WHO, in a document entitled The Dhaka Declaration, determined that populations in SE Asia is highly vulnerable to the effects of climate change - especially the poor, marginalized and those living on small islands, in low-lying coastal areas, in mountainous regions, water-stressed areas and urban slums. For anyone who has traveled in SE Asia, you know that these categories encompass a fairly large percentage of the overall population living there.

They reiterated the need to examine the impacts of climate on public health especially in these areas "given the strong connections between climate change, environmental degradation and human health." For example, last year in Kenya water supplies became more and more scarce as drought gripped part of the country. Because water resources were stretched thin, water was reused and repurposed. There was less water to wash with and water that had already been used for something else was often used in cooking because it was the only option available. The result was a raging cholera epidemic that raged for months.

Similarly, it has been speculated that the changing severity of seasonal conditions may lead to biological vectors of disease such as mosquitoes becoming more prevalent in areas where it was previously not a problem. Dengue fever, a tropical mosquito borne disease in recent years has been detected along the southern border of the country in Texas.  Whether the incidence of such diseases will become more prevalent or whether their ranges will shift is unknown. 

Of course, in the U.S. we are fairly resilient and have the resources to respond to such a threat relatively quickly. Others around the world whose governments are less resilient have to rely on organizations like the WHO.

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