Address crisis of health impacts of climate change

People walk past a COP28 logo ahead of the United Nations climate summit in Dubai on November 28, 2023. 

Photo credit: AFP

As the COP28 begins in Dubai, the call to cut carbon emissions and support countries most impacted by the consequences of the climate emergency grow louder.

The people who are least responsible for climate emissions are paying for the crisis with their health and lives.

Despite their importance, the health impacts of climate change were largely missing from the debate at the inaugural African Climate Summit, hosted in Kenya in September, missing a vital opportunity to advocate the necessary change to protect communities across the continent.

People across Eastern Africa have experienced multiple challenges with far-reaching consequences—from prolonged droughts to unpredictable floods, which decimate crops and infrastructure, to increased outbreaks of malaria, malnutrition and waterborne disease—which are set to intensify in frequency and severity.

These impacts are compounding issues such as conflict, economic challenges and lack of access to food and healthcare.

The recent drought across the Horn of Africa, obviously exacerbated by climate change, has parched the once-fertile lands. Northern Kenya has reported alarming levels of malnutrition, exacerbated by drought, which saw families lose crops and livestock.

In one ward of Marsabit County, a third of children under five were malnourished.

The UNHCR says 58 per cent of displacement in Somalia this year was due to drought while subsequent heavy rains caused by El Niño have damaged infrastructure and limited healthcare access. Floods have affected more than 200,000 internally displaced people in Baidoa alone with forecasts predicting food insecurity for millions.

Intense rains have brought devastating floods to South Sudan, compounding problems for communities reeling from prolonged conflict, widespread displacement and limited access to healthcare, shelter and food. They wreaked havoc on croplands, livestock and vital infrastructure, bringing malaria and malnutrition and limiting healthcare access, exacerbating a dire humanitarian situation and further compromising health outcomes.

Across the world, we are seeing a similar picture as once-predictable patterns of diseases are shifting, affecting vulnerable populations disproportionately. Malaria, hitherto confined to specific regions or times of the year, is encroaching into new territories and seasons as temperature and rainfall patterns change, putting more lives at risk.

There is a need to urgently respond to the dire health impacts of climate change, especiall in Africa. This is not a future problem; it is happening. In this time of crisis, there is a need for meaningful action to protect the health of the most vulnerable.

We need to see climate action that equals the scale of the climate emergency—including commitments to curb emissions and support the most affected countries. We cannot afford another failure. The world cannot continue to look on as humanitarian crises become more severe, and the most vulnerable pay the highest price.

- Mr Kaya is the Eastern Africa general-director of Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF). @MSF_EastAfrica