Much like this American television show host, this author too finds little time to explain that man-made climate change is real and that extreme weather events are caused by climate change. But how does climate change and melting glaciers and starving polar bears affect you, who is reading this thousands of miles away on a screen that is subject to the heat and humidity of a city like Chennai? Well, truth bomb number one, climate change is happening right here in Chennai. And truth bomb number two, the health implications of climate change are worrying enough to have contingency plans in place.
Speaking at the Madras Institute of Development Studies (MIDS) on Saturday, on the topic of Climate Change and Health, environmentalist Shweta Narayan said, “All climate change consequences will affect human health. The impact of climate change can be seen in the rise of diseases and the kinds of diseases around us. Because of the income disparity, the rich will not have access to healthy food and the poor will not have access to food, even though the poor will be the worst affected.”
Before dismissing this as alarmist, it is important to understand that there have been plenty of warning signs for the changing climate, especially in the form of extreme weather events like the 2015 Chennai floods, the Vardah and Ockhi cyclones. According to a 2012 'Coastal Zones of India' report prepared by Ahmedabad-based Satellite Application Centre (SAC), a unit of Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), Tamil Nadu is set to lose 3,209.33 sq km of coastal area prone to submergence if the sea level rises by even one metre.
Shwetha explains, “The entire industrial corridor, especially the toxic industrial belt is located on the coast. It is sensitive because in the event of flooding or natural disaster or an extreme weather event, these would be the spots which would cause further contamination inland and affect people. It’s not just a matter of clearing up the flood water. Along with that, there would be toxic chemicals which would adversely affect people and cause grave injuries.”
According to the Whole Health Organization (WHO), climate change adversely affects the social and environmental determinants of health such as clean air, safe drinking water, sufficient food and secure shelter. For example, an oil spill would not only affect wildlife but it would also affect people living in the area in the form of toxic rashes and infections among other health hazards.
The rising temperatures in the tropics also means contagious diseases spread at a faster pace than normal, making it a public health nightmare. According to the latest figures released by the National Vector Borne Disease Control Programme (NVBDCP) of the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, there has been a sharp rise in the number of dengue cases in Tamil Nadu. The state had the highest number of dengue cases reported in the country last year.
In the first line of fire are over one lakh fishermen from economically disadvantaged communities. Speaking to TNM, Shweta says, “With the change in temperature and with erratic monsoons and flooding, we will see more of vector borne diseases like malaria, dengue and chikungunya. Even in the regions where you would normally find these diseases, there would be a shift because it’s getting warmer and more humid. So, the range, area and pattern will also change. Because of the poor urban planning, there is also a lot of water stagnation.”
The water stagnation, in combination floods and rising temperatures creates a conducive environment for diseases like dengue, malaria and chikungunya to spread. “We will see more of these episodic disasters in the future also,” she says.
While meticulous planning for every type of extreme weather event is not possible, basic contingency plans must become a priority of the government. Installing early warning systems and emergency response systems would be the first step in the right direction. Shweta said, “Mapping out the vulnerable areas and training first responders from the local communities is important.”
It is important that medical practitioners are equipped with systems that enable them to identify shifting patterns of disease distribution so that emergency department personnel would be aware of potential threats.
Of long-term planning, Shweta cautions that one should not make urban planning about architecture alone. She says, “Given the fact that we have industries on the coast and they are very vulnerable, what kind of emergency plans do we have in place? We saw with the Chennai oil spill that we have nothing in place. When we don’t even know how to clear up the spill and use buckets to do that. We’re talking about refineries and power plants and nuclear power plants on the coast which are in vulnerable spots.”