Global warming is considered as one of the major challenges the world
is facing today and will be dealing with for many years to come. While one
country such as the United States accounts for 23% of the worlds' greenhouse gas
emissions (GGH), the continent of Africa contributes only 4%. Paradoxically, Sub-Saharan
Africa which "Contributes the least to global warming is in line to be the
hardest hit by the resulting climate changes."
I will attempt, in this paper to focus mainly on the global warming impact on
health in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA).
"The most recent report from the United
Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) provides compelling evidence
on the effects of human release of greenhouse gases (GHG) from fossil fuels and
deforestation on global climate change. The IPCC estimates that since the mid-19th
has been an increase in average temperature of 0.6_C, with most of this increase
occurring at the end of 20th century. In addition, it provides evidence of
changes in the patterns of precipitation, aridification, and humidity."
In 1992, 20 years after the United
Nations (UN) Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm, the United
Nations convened another conference in Rio de Janeiro (Brazil) to address
issues of environment and development in the world. Since that conference, the
United Nations Framework on Climate Change (UNFCCC) has, been advocating the
stabilization of GHG in the atmosphere as a sine qua non condition to
effectively fight global warming. While the UNFCCC recommendations were
followed on a voluntary basis, the Kyoto protocol moved for a mandatory GHG
emissions target requiring advanced industrialized nations to reduce their GHG
below the 1990 level by 2012. As beautifully summed up "As carbon goes up,
health goes down; as carbon goes down, health goes up."
Efforts to curb GHG
emissions are being made globally due to the fact that the negative impacts of
global warming are of great detriment to the environment and to human life. Even
though no country is exempt, Africa is predicted to be greatly affected, more than
any other geographical region of the world. The weak economic structure which
is the underlying fabric of Sub-Saharan Africa is the rationale behind this
prediction. The continent suffers from poor health infrastructures, inadequate
health systems, and weak technological capabilities which make it difficult to
properly address major natural catastrophes and life threatening issues. Rebecca
Nielsen sadly describes the issues as follow:
"The nations of Sub-Saharan Africa are the poorest in the world. The
region is marked by political instability and economic strife. The average life
expectancy is only 38 years. More than half of the Sub-Saharan African
population does not have access to safe water. Cholera caused by the bacteria
vibrio cholerae, infects the intestines, causing severe diarrhea. If not
treated immediately with intravenous fluid, an individual can die of
dehydration in a matter of hours. In areas in which an open water source is
used for both the disposal of human wastes and a source of drinking water, one
case of cholera can quickly become an epidemic."
Any harm done to the
world's natural life supporting systems has direct and indirect implications on
human lives. Experts have predicted a rise in temperature over the coming
years; consequently the lives of millions of Africans will be greatly affected.
While cold related mortality may decrease in temperate regions, the rise in
temperature may increasingly claim lives in Sub-Saharan Africa. With severe
heat stress, people in the region would face mild to severe cardiovascular
complications ranging from a higher rate of high blood pressure and strokes to
coronary heart disease, etc…
Common sense tells us
that there is an allowable exposure time and beyond that limit, the body is no
longer able to cope with heat stress. Dehydration as a result of excessive
sweating could occur. The body generates sweat as a way to cool itself. Under
extreme temperature, more sweat is being released by the body as a way to
ventilate itself. This excessive sweating can lead to severe dehydration which
could be fatal. Excessive sweats are often accompanied with complication which could
lead to seizures, kidney failure, coma and death. Medical scientists
distinguish two forms of dehydration: heypernatremic and the hyponatremic. The
first one occurs with a depletion of water and the latter concerns the
depletion of salt.
Skin disorders such as dry skin and heat rash,
respiratory difficulties, and eye problems could also prevail under the
condition of an extreme heat wave in Sub-Saharan Africa. There is compelling
evidences that ultraviolet rays (UVR) could cause cancer. Skin cancer should
not just be a concern for light skinned people, but for Africans, as well.
Studies have shown that it occurs with people who have melanin. The detection
happens at a later time which could be a dangerous stage to overturn. The UVR
does not only affect the skin, but also the quality of vision. Prolonged exposure to UVR could damage the
eyes. It has been confirmed by scientists that the UVR levels increase as we
get closer to the equator, which is why Africa is not immune to the harmful UVR
health effects. According to the 1991 UNEP report the decrease of the ozone
layer will create "between 1.6 and 1.75 millions cataracts in the world."
is relevant however to underscore that heat stress cannot be confined to
tropical and sub-tropical regions only; history has shown that temperate areas
were also severely hit by high temperatures. Europe and Chicago, for example, had
their unfortunate shares of death tolls related to extreme heat.
"In July 1995,
Chicago sustained a heat wave that resulted in more than 600 deaths, 3300
excess emergency department visits, and a substantial number of intensive care unit
admissions for near fatal heat stroke."
"The summer of 2003
was probably Europe's hottest summer in over 500 years, with average
temperatures 3.5 8C above normal 6-8, with approximately 22.000 to 45,000 heat-related
deaths occurring across Europe over two weeks in August."
As food and water
become scarce with global warming, Sub-Saharan Africa would experience an
unprecedented rise of disease epidemics. Famine will lead to malnutrition and
hunger related death. Waterborne diseases such as cholera and diarrhea would be
highly prevalent as sea level rises and forces a massive displacement of
Africans living in coastal regions. Decreasing water sources will greatly
impact the quality of life and hygiene.
influences on regional famines are another well recognized climate-health association.
Malnutrition remains one of the largest health crises worldwide and according
to WHO, approximately 800 million people are currently undernourished, with
close to half of these living in Africa."
Vector borne diseases
such as malaria are highly prevalent in tropical regions. 80% of malaria
related death is registered in Africa. It has been documented that dragon
flies, mosquito fish, bats and many other species are natural predators of
mosquitoes. Unfortunately, unsustainable exploitation of the environment would
cause a massive loss of biodiversity including these predators. As a result, we
would assist in a widespread population of mosquitoes making easy the
occurrence of malaria outbreaks.
It is important to note that the predicted impacts of
global warming on human health are subject to caution. The anticipated negative
effects could be adverse; the potential outcome could be beneficial. Increases
in temperature in SSA could affect mosquito's survival capacity.
Most of the studies on this subject have primarily
focused on developed countries. There has not been much literature covering
climate impacts on health in Africa. The available one is highly hypothetical, and
is based on scenarios which could be compromised by uncertainties. One can
easily detect flaws in the assessment of health risks. Human beings, unlike
many other species, are gifted with an incredible natural predisposition to
adapt to their environment. They have been, in the course of historical
evolution, acclimating themselves to environmental changes, including harsh
climatic conditions. James stated that:
"The IPCC report also underscore that our understanding of the links
between climate, climate change and human health has increased considerably
over the last ten years. However, there are still many gaps in knowledge about
the vulnerability and adaptability of physical, ecological and social systems
to such climate change."
It appears that global warming as a result of GHG emission in the atmosphere could
lead to various life threatening effects
in Sub-Saharan Africa. The health of the population of Sub-Saharan Africa could
be greatly affected due to its week governance structures and its poor economic
performance. The lack of data for quantitative projections, however, and the
limited research produced on the topic make the predictions highly
speculative. This led many scholars to
be skeptical about the conclusiveness of global warming impact on health. In any case, equipping Sub-Saharan Africa with
adequate health services, modern infrastructure, and sophisticated technologies
could help not just Africa but the whole world to adapt to these natural catastrophes.