Why the climate crisis is also a population health crisis – especially in Southeast Asia

By 2050, parts of Asia could experience heat waves, extreme rainfall, severe hurricanes and droughts, threatening the ingredients of good health and affecting the overall quality of life. Picture: Canvas

In Central America, chronic kidney disease has been found to prematurely kill tens of thousands of agricultural workers like sugar cane growers for years. In a 2021 study, occupational heat stress has been identified as the leading cause of these deaths.

As the climate crisis continues to linger, climate risk is poised to inflict the entirety of the global human population in a myriad of ways that go beyond specific occupations. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), climate change is expected to cause about 250,000 deaths per year malnutrition, malaria, diarrhea and heat stress only. By 2030, it will cost between US$2 billion and US$4 billion a year to mitigate these health impacts, the WHO also reported.

And Asia should bear the brunt of these impacts as the region is expected to be hardest hit by the effects of climate change, according to a 2020 Mckinsey report.

In light of these findings, England-based multinational consumer goods company Reckitt brought together population health researchers, sustainability experts and government leaders in a recent roundtable to discuss how which countries can start building climate-resilient health systems for the future. GovInsider breaks down the key takeaways from this roundtable, with insights from Reckitt’s recently released report.

Southeast Asia particularly vulnerable

Of the world’s 25 economies most affected by climate risk, a quarter of them reside in Southeast Asia, according to the Global Climate Risk Index. The Philippines, Vietnam and Myanmar have experienced more extreme weather in the past ten years than any other of the ten countries most affected by climate hazards combined. This resulted in a combined 1.7% decline in their GDP, said Steve Firstbrook, Country Director, Trade and Investment, British High Commission Singapore.

“We know that if we don’t tackle these issues here in Southeast Asia, we’re just not going to be successful globally,” Firstbrook said. For every 1% increase in exposure to climate risk, the Gini coefficient – the index of the degree of inequality and the distribution of income wealth – widens by almost a quarter, according to the UN.

“We know this will affect the poorest and most marginalized in society. It will hit them the hardest, and it will hit them first,” Firstbrook added. Annual premature deaths associated with outdoor and household air pollution already affects 450,000 people a year in Southeast Asia and will exceed 650,000 by 2040.

Increase in heat-related impacts

Heat, it seems, is not only bad for the planet, but also for the human body. In a recent study, Dr. Joel Aik, adjunct assistant professor at Duke-NUS, found a positive relationship between the incidence of heart attacks and ambient temperature in tropical climates.

“We also found evidence that the risk was high for people aged 65 and over, and this has important implications for ageing population like Singapore and many other developed cities. More and more of us will face climate-related risks, especially to cardiovascular and respiratory health,” Aik said.

Aik, who has previously consulted WHO on vector-borne disease studies, shared that with global warming we can expect higher morbidity from mosquito-borne diseases, diseases food and mental health emergency admissions to hospitals – potentially even suicides.

“Most studies related to climate and health have been conducted in temperate countries and developed cities around the world. These studies tend to exclude Southeast Asia. So while we know what the anticipated impacts of climate change are, we don’t know exactly what its impact will be on the health of people in this region,” Aik said.

Many Southeast Asian countries have limited resources when it comes to building climate resilience, Aik said. As a predominantly developing region, it has received nearly three times more global funding to support climate change mitigation projects (US$28.37 billion) versus climate adaptation projects (US$10.42 billion), the ISEAS-Yusok Ishak Institute earlier discovered this year.

In light of this, Aik advocates for more region-specific research to be devoted to this area, to help estimate the economic costs associated with strengthening healthcare as a climate adaptation measure. To ensure resources are fully utilized in the present and not built in advance, the scope and timing of climate solutions is also crucial, he said.

“Singapore is in a very unique position, as we have strengthened much of our data collection capacity with surveillance systems, and we have good health records. We are well placed to conduct these studies,” he added.

Hope for the region

But while Southeast Asia is a vulnerable region, it’s also a region that has “remarkable agency,” Firstbrook said. “There is no need to resign and just watch the big issuers make their choices.”

Reckitt’s recent report highlights the many opportunities that can be realized if ecosystems are protected and if ecosystem-human dynamics are better understood. These include economic stability, pandemic risk reduction, and food security, among many other global concerns.

A green future is not only better for people’s health, but also fairer economically and socially. For example, a McKinsey study found that investing in renewable energy creates almost three times more jobs than the money spent on fossil fuel industries, making a just transition a reality. The International Energy Agency has also reported that women represent up to 32% of employees in the renewable energy sector, compared to only 22% in the fossil fuel sectors where glass ceilings are prevalent.

A “One Health” approach

“When it comes to executing solutions, humans are very forgetful. Heat waves are a silent killer, but we don’t remember them,” said Professor Jason Lee, Director of Heat Resilience and Performance Center at the Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine, National University of Singapore. Lee is a member of the management committee of the Global Heat Health Information Network.

“Climate change is not an acute problem. We need to build our capacity over the years,” said Lee, who stressed that the current climate-related health effects we are witnessing today are just the tip of the iceberg.

In Reckitt’s recent article, The impact of climate change on health, ten recommendations have been developed for world leaders, led by WHO One Health Framework. It is an “integrated and unifying approach to balancing and optimizing the health of people, animals and the environment,” according to the official WHO website.

Key recommendations include integrating population health financing into the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, quantifying the health co-benefits of proposed environmental investments, and increasing the overall importance climate considerations in health security priorities.

On an individual level, Lee recommended that people start learning to “use heat like a friend.” This could include using increased ambient temperature to supplement training efficiency by exercising in the sun for 45 minutes instead of an hour. As part of climate adaptation, researchers are also beginning to look at ways in which heat can have health benefits, such as improved liver function, skin health, or psychological health, Lee said.

“Climate change mitigation will sort us out one day, but we only have one life and we still have to survive before future solutions take effect. So while we buy time to learn from the past so to prepare for the future, we have to make sure we don’t cut and paste solutions,” Lee said.

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