This post is a synthesis of a panel discussion at the UNFPA Population Dynamics and Climate Change conference in Mexico City with Marcia Castro, of the Harvard School of Public Health; Heather D’Agnes, of USAID; and Lori Hunter, of the University of Colorado at Boulder.
It is well-known that environmental change — including climate change — has important impacts on human health
. However, it is less well understood how health systems shape the responses of individuals and households to environmental change. Population dynamics — such as fertility, migration, and mortality and morbidity — influence community health and greatly affect community resilience in the face of environmental changes, including the capacity to adapt to climate change.
Mortality and Morbidity
Morbidity and mortality dramatically shape a household’s ability to adapt its livelihood strategies to a changing climate. For example, in areas of high HIV prevalence, such as sub-Saharan Africa, adult mortality seriously undermines livelihood options. In the face of such loss, the household’s reliance on local natural resources intensifies. If environmental change reduces the amount of available resources, the household has fewer options for energy and sustenance.
Morbidity also affects adaptive capacity, and morbidity itself can be shaped by environmental change. For example, environmental scarcity can increase poverty, which can lead to an increase in risky transactional sex, further fueling the HIV pandemic. Malnutrition resulting from drought and environmental shocks can suppress the immune systems of HIV-positive people, making them more vulnerable to illness and less able to adapt to other external changes.
Fertility and Family Planning
Healthier households are more resilient households, so increasing access to health services, including reproductive health services, is essential for building adaptive capacity. High fertility poses challenges to a family’s livelihood and has negative health effects on women and children. Providing reproductive health services is an effective way to improve the capacity of these vulnerable groups to adapt to climate change. For example, a recent study argues that lowering fertility rates in the Himalayan region could increase community resilience to the predicted fluctuations in water quantity.
However, there is a high level of unmet demand for contraception across the globe. How can community adaptation programs help meet this need? Importantly, research from the Philippines suggests that integrating population, health, and environment programs in a package approach to community development is more effective than single-sector interventions. Including family planning and reproductive health services in community-based climate adaptation programs could not only more effectively meet the community’s needs, but could also improve its adaptive capacity better than health or climate programs alone.
Another population process, migration, can both impact health and affect the capacity for adaptation. For example, internal migration in the Brazilian Amazon appears associated with the spread of malaria, which negatively impacts the adaptive capacity of households. To mitigate climate change’s health impacts, states should more effectively plan settlements and health systems, including health impact assessments for infrastructure and development projects. (Editor’s Note – northern Nigeria and Niger present another example of similar climate-related migratory patterns that significantly impact health and economic resilience.)
In summary, the scientific evidence is clear that population dynamics — such as mortality, fertility, and migration — and environmental trends are linked. Projects intended to improve a community’s ability to adapt to a changing climate should consider and address these linkages in their design and implementation.
Sources: Foundation for Environmental Conservation, UNFPA, USAID.
Photo Credit: “Toureg family in Niger,” courtesy of flickr user ILRI.