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[SYDNEY] People in rural areas are at greater risk of dying from extreme hot and cold temperatures than those living in urban areas, says a new study conducted in China’s eastern Zhejiang province.

Published in March in Environmental Health Perspectives, the study relies on the province’s data on weather, air pollution, population density and mortality gathered from 2009 to 2015 to compare rural and urban mortality in Zhejiang.    

Although Asian countries are recording steady urbanisation, a large percentage of population continues to live in villages and towns. The UN’s Population Division predicts that by 2025 about 45 per cent of Asia’s population will still be rural.

“While urban heat waves can mean a higher hazard level, urban populations often have lesser outdoor working time and better housing, which reduces their exposure, as opposed to rural agricultural workers who are more likely to be working outdoors for long periods and have limited access to air conditioning”

Wei Liu, International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis

Kejia Hu, study lead author and researcher from Zhejiang University, tells SciDev.Net that in Zhejiang, extreme cold temperatures increased the mortality rate by 98 per cent in rural populations, and by 47 per cent in urban populations. Similarly, she said extreme hot temperatures increased the mortality rate by 18 per cent for rural populations and by 14 per cent for urban populations.

“While urban heat waves can mean a higher hazard level, urban populations often have lesser outdoor working time and better housing, which reduces their exposure, as opposed to rural agricultural workers who are more likely to be working outdoors for long periods and have limited access to air conditioning,” says Wei Liu, study co-author and researcher at the Austria-based International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA). “Also, rural residents often have lower access to higher quality public health services and early warning information, making them more vulnerable to extreme temperature events.”

The study warns that if the urban-rural gaps in education, income, and access to health services are not addressed, the province will lag in achieving the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, especially those related to health.

“More extreme temperature events triggered by climate change will increase the risks of cause-specific morbidity and mortality for rural people in developing countries. Temperature-related chronic cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, such as stroke, acute myocardial infarction, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and asthma mortality will increase,” says Hu.

Stefan Hochrainer-Stigler, IIASA’s senior researcher and co-author says, “Investments in healthcare in rural areas could help reduce vulnerability. Targeted measures such as extending the statutory standard for thermal heating and insulation of urban apartments to rural housing could help reduce exposure.”

Yuming Guo, study co-author from the School of Public Health and Preventive Medicine, Monash University, says that the findings of the study suggest that people living in hot and humid countries like Malaysia, the Philippines and Singapore should pay more attention during hot weather as they have more hot days than temperate regions.

“Projections on temperature-related mortality in the future should consider the rural-urban difference, or else the estimates might be not precise,” Guo adds .Grant Blashki, associate professor at the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute, University of Melbourne, says the study significantly improves the understanding of differential impacts of extreme weather in rural and urban settings. “Studies such as these are so important in shaping policy for preparing health systems for climate change, and to ensure optimal preparation of infrastructure, personnel and coordination,” he says.  
 
This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Asia & Pacific desk.