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[NEW DELHI] The damage inflicted on health and livelihoods by climate change could be deeply influenced by the way in which sustainable development policies are built, according to a new study.

Using the predicted climate-related rise in malaria in India as a case study, scientists found that they could either reduce or exacerbate its adverse impact — depending on how policies are put together.

Writing in Environmental Management this month (6 January), they call for a more comprehensive approach to developing ways of adapting to climate change, that integrates climate adaptation and development.

More than 96 per cent of India's population — 973 million people — are exposed to malarial parasites, and projected increases in temperature of 3.3–4.3 degrees Celsius by 2050, along with increases in humidity, are expected to put more areas at risk.

The team, from the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad and the National Institute of Malaria Research in New Delhi, studied the interplay of two sets of variables on malaria risk.

The first set were climate factors — temperature, rainfall, humidity and related factors such as vegetation and the waterlogging of sites. The second set were indicators of sustainable development, such as income levels, irrigation, agriculture practices, land use changes and distance from healthcare facilities.

They also looked at the impact of other development activities such as building dams, industries, canals and railway lines; as well as public health measures for malaria control.

They found that even if a development activity — such as the construction of canal irrigation — favours the spread of malaria, the overall effect could be a reduction in malaria if it also improves income levels, because people are better able to afford mosquito nets and sprays, and medicines.

Similarly, development that traditionally fosters the disease — such as deforestation and dam construction — can, if managed properly, reduce its incidence, they argue.

Other factors can be built into development projects, such as improving communities' awareness about reducing potential breeding grounds for mosquitoes by eliminating stagnant water.

Well-crafted and well-managed development policies could prepare communities to adapt to climate change and lower adverse health impacts, the authors say.

"The conventional view has been to consider climate change a barrier to development and simultaneously development as a threat to climate change."

Instead, they argue for a scenario in which "development itself emerges as the central tool for enhancing adaptive and mitigative capacities".

Amit Garg, professor at the department of public policy at the Indian Institute of Ahmedabad and lead author of the paper, told SciDev.Net that every large infrastructure project needs a "reverse impact assessment" to ascertain how the environment, in particular climate change, could affect the project in the medium to long-term.

"Our developmental policies, plans and strategies have to be dove-tailed with those for climate change," he said.