The public health dimension associated with climate changes is a critical interface that has yet to be fully addressed by the Government of India as they continue to push forward India’s action plan on climate change. Missing this key intersection would be devastating for India’s population, as it has been duly noted, is vulnerable to many of the negative consequences of climate change. It would be prudent for the Indian Government to take a closer look at the overlaps in opportunities and threats that bridge public health issues and climate change responses at this stage to address to very pressing issues for India’s population.
What are the public health dimensions of climate change?
The World Health Organization’s website devoted to explaining the public health risks associated with climate change highlights three broad issues that link these two public policy domains which have also been articulated by the IPCC:
- “Those that are relatively direct, usually caused by weather extremes.”
– Diseases: Natural disasters caused by climate variability increase situations of epidemics of deadly diseases
- “The health consequences of various processes of environmental change and ecological disruption that occur in response to climate change.”
– Food security has clear linkages to malnutrition concerns.
– Air quality and associated human health risks
- “The diverse health consequences – traumatic, infectious, nutritional, psychological and other – that occur in demoralized and displaced populations in the wake of climate-induced economic dislocation, environmental decline, and conflict situations.”
Public health in India and Climate Change linkages
Certain aspects of these public health dimensions have received their place in the climate change dialogue in India mainly because they already have revealed significant consequences. For example, concerns over malnutrition issues in India are at the forefront of public health discussions. A recent article in the NY Times highlighted that despite India’s booming economy, malnutrition rates, particularly in children, have remained disconcertingly high. Responding to the same article, an India Development Blog post, sums up the situation as: “an interesting, though depressing, paradox in India”. This issue has also prompted some of the resistance in pursuing bio fuels in India as the debate over ‘food versus fuel’ is more politically and socially charged given India’s malnutrition rates.
Air quality concerns have had a long standing place in national environmental policy across the world. In India, densely populated cities such as New Delhi, Kolkata and Mumbai have topped poor air quality lists at the national and international level. ‘Indoor air pollution’ caused by coal burning stoves and poor ventilation systems, is also a major concern in India. Greenhouse gas emissions and air quality thus have been well housed in the climate change and public health discussions and arguably the most prominently addressed. Regional and national plans in India have attempted to ease air pollution through various channels: increased public transport, regulation of emissions (India’s Air Pollution Act of 1981), and pursuing alternative clean energy sources.
Recently, a large number of reports have noted India’s vulnerability to catastrophic natural disasters due to climate change. As the recent Climatico national assessment report suggests, this has lead the Indian Government to pursue global cooperation in technology and financing to ensure the Government can build the needed institutions for climate change adaptation initiatives. In scientific realm, the linkage of climate changes to increased ‘natural’ disasters has been the source of contention as these claims have been refuted and defended by climate change skeptics and supporters, respectively. Regardless, the Government of India has been a vocal supporter in the claim that adaptive capacity needs to be strengthened in India as weather related events, such as floods, have already taken ‘disastrous’ tolls in India due to a mixture of institutional failure and ‘natural’ occurrences. If the gravest predictions on the increased frequency and intensity of these weather phenomenon due to climate change are correct, the risks to India is, indeed, high.
The challenges in addressing climate change and health impacts are complex. As the World Health Organization notes: uncertainty, risk assessment, and difficulties in researching causality and correlations in both climate change and public health issues cloud any easy policy action that will address both of these issues simultaneously. However, these similar research gaps are also opportunities. As India’s National Action Plan on Climate Change has set out to address India’s own research gaps in climate change, there is little mention of the public health dimensions associated with climate change risks. Many of the Action Plan missions: water, sustainable habitat, and strategic knowledge have indirect references to their urgency based on public health impacts they carry if not addressed. This indication provides a starting point in the collaborative opportunity between India’s public health initiatives and climate change goals. Public health in India has garnered worldwide attention and has a result has prompted massive public health initiatives and knowledge networks throughout India over the past 10 years. Yet as mentioned earlier, India still lags in many public health standards. The Government of India should not miss this opportunity to coordinate these two issues as it begins implementing many of its Action Plan’s missions as this intersection is critical to the Indian context.