Africa’s elderly bearing the brunt of heatwaves

farmers prepare soil
Farmers preparing the soil for planting. Copyright: Siaka Dembélé, IER, Mali, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

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  • Researchers assessed impact of climate on health of populations globally
  • Africa spends less on addressing climate-induced health issues
  • The continent is not prioritising monitoring of climate change impacts on health

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Periods of excessive hot weather are taking their toll on vulnerable populations, particularly those over 65 years old in Africa and other world regions, says a report, revealing the negative impacts of climate change on health.

The authors behind the report are calling for decisive action on climate change effects in tandem with the global response to the COVID-19 pandemic to save lives.

“No country is immune to the health effects of climate change. However, populations in Africa are often experiencing the greatest changes and frequently have the least ability to adapt,” says Alice McGushin, a co-author and programme manager at the Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change.

“No country is immune to the health effects of climate change. However, populations in Africa are often experiencing the greatest changes.”

Alice McGushin, Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change.

“As the COVID-19 [pandemic] has made everyone acutely aware, something that is a health crisis in one location is a concern for people around the world,” she adds.

According to the report, Africa spent just 48 US cents per capita in the 2018-2019 financial year on climate change adaptation in the health sector compared with over US$5 per capita in both Europe and the Americas.

The  report, which is based on several methods including a review of the literature and estimation of exposures using climate and population data, shows that the rising heat in Africa corresponds with an increase in the number of days people were exposed to a very high or extremely high risk of wildfire between 2001-2004 and 2016-2019 in 114 countries.

The wildfires have occurred more in Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ghana, Guinea, Mozambique, South Sudan and Zambia, says the report, further highlighting the estimated risk of death due to the crisis, health complications and economic losses.

Temperatures have continued to rise despite countries’ commitment to the landmark Paris Agreement five years ago that aimed to limit global warming to well below two degrees Celcius. This has further created breeding grounds for Aedes aegypti mosquitoes and fuelled the spread of dengue fever in Africa, rising by five per cent compared with the 1950s baseline data, according to the report published in The Lancet this month.

From 1990 to 2017, vulnerability [to extreme heat] increased in the African region from 28·4 to 31·3 per cent, the South-East Asia region from 28·3 to 31·3 per cent while in the Western Pacific region it moved from 33·2 to 36·6 per cent, says the report, adding that elderly are bearing the brunt of the heatwaves.

Global food security is also under threat because of rising temperatures, with the report showing that Africa lost approximately 28.5 billion hours of labour in the agriculture sector alone in 2018, an increase of over 170 per cent of the 1990 level.

McGushin tells SciDev.Net that countries need to keep up to standard with policies aimed at reducing greenhouse emissions, improving adaptation and financing in line with the Paris Agreement.

Efforts to mitigate climate change could yield additional health benefits, such as reduced exposure to air pollution, stressing on more financing in climate adaptation for Africa,  according to McGushin,

“Another key step is strengthening the health systems in Africa not only to cope with the changing health risks of climate change, but to manage all areas of health and well-being,” she says. “Adaptation in agriculture and food systems is essential to ensure food security and good nutrition.”

Paul Dotto, a lecturer in development studies at the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, tells SciDev.Net that while heatwaves could have far-reaching implications, Africa has not prioritised monitoring heatwaves for many decades.

“Due to poor monitoring of the impact and the less emphasis on dealing with it, heatwaves will less likely be thought of as a threat to the continent,” he explains.

He adds that looking at Africa or Latin America, there are deeper issues worth investigating, such as how the local people deal with climate change.

This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Sub-Saharan Africa English desk.