In 2007, the 4th Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned of the many visible and subtle effects of climate change on human health. The report cautioned, amongst other things, of the probable consequences of climate change such as air pollution, heat stress, flooding, water scarcity, food insecurity, forest fires, loss of agricultural land, and expansion of vector-borne diseases into hitherto unaffected areas. The report also stressed upon the adverse impacts of climate change on vulnerable countries such as India.

Soon after, in 2010, a report on climate change was commissioned by the government of India, which rightly listed health as a crucial area of impact. Recently, the well-respected British medical journal, The Lancet, stated that climate change will unravel the progress made in the field of public health in the past fifty years. Thus, for at least a decade now, climate change has been recognised as a threat to human health and not just as an environmental issue.

In a country as susceptible to climate change as India, human health is likely to be affected in several ways. Poverty eradication and developmental needs compete with a looming public health crisis. The latter however remains a neglected area. A perusal of Union budgets over the past few years indicates a trend of miniscule expenditure on healthcare.

Alarmingly, changing climate has already begun to affect large swaths of population in different parts of the country. Apart from disastrous events such as cyclones, floods, droughts, and famines, which can affect hundreds of thousands of people, in a very short span of time increasing temperatures have started affecting human health through heatwaves, polluted air, malnutrition, and illnesses. 

Please have a look at The 2015 Lancet Commission on Health and Climate Change

Air pollution exacerbating health crisis 

Perhaps the most widespread cause as well as effect of climate change is air pollution. At present, three quarters of India’s energy requirements are met from fossil fuel combustion. An abundant supply of cheap coal is used to fire power plants, which results in nearly half of the country’s CO2 emissions. Other significant sources of air pollution are vehicular pollution (2.5 million cars are sold each year), cement production, construction industry, and burning of crop stubble to clear the fields for the next cultivation cycle. 

While it is subtle and often remains unnoticeable, over a period of time, air pollution causes respiratory and heart diseases especially in vulnerable sections of the population such as children and the elderly. New research suggests that it also has a negative effect on the development of children’s brains. India faces periodic episodes of extreme air pollution. Apart from the national capital, New Delhi, and its surrounding region, several cities have smog filled skies for most part of the year. 

A report compiled by Health Effects Institute (HEI), an NGO that documents the health effects of air pollution, indicates that in terms of the world’s worst polluted air, India is next only to China. The gravity of the problem may be gauged from the fact that air pollution results in the deaths of 1.2 million Indians each year. Between 2010 and 2015, smog induced respiratory infections jumped by 30%. The cancer causing PM 2.5 has also caused an increase in cardiovascular disease. Air pollution is also a significant economic problem resulting in loss of GDP to the tune of 3%. 

Growing health worries due to heatwaves 

Another widely impacting, yet direct effect of climate change, already being experienced is a steady increase in the severity of heatwaves. Changing climate patterns have resulted in searing temperatures across much of India. While heat waves have been a recurrent phenomenon in India during summers, the past few years have witnessed days with extreme temperatures hovering around 48 degree Celsius. The number of heat wave days per decade has increased from 74 days per year in the 1960s to 98 days per year in the 2000s. 

The effects of exposure to extreme heat range from dehydration and heat exhaustion to heat stroke and even death. A new studyshows that even a small increase in temperature is likely to increase the number of heat-related deaths by two and a half times. Another report warns that although currently, only 2 % of the population is exposed to extreme heat in summers, if fossil fuels consumption is not reduced, by 2100 A.D, nearly 70% of the population could be at risk of being exposed to extreme heat, with disastrous consequences for human health. Heatwaves are exacerbated in cities due to the ‘urban heat island effect’. It is the effect of heat absorbed by concrete roads and structures, which fails to dissipate even after sunset. 

This phenomenon is particularly of concern to India because 40 % of the total population is estimated to live in cities by 2030. Coupled with over-burdened cities and lack of adequate cooling mechanisms, heatwaves will result in an increased number of deaths. The poor and those involved in manual labour are most vulnerable to such heat exposure owing to their limited ability to afford air cooling or conditioning systems. This will likely push them into a vicious cycle of ill health and further poverty. Because India is geographically diverse, climate change will manifest itself in different ways. 

Coastal areas will experience severe cyclones, flooding, and seawater intrusion leading to loss of lives, habitats, agricultural lands, and fishing grounds. In mountainous regions glaciers will melt faster and fresh water sources will decline. Increased precipitation in the Himalayas will cause landslides due to flash floods. 

Public health needs to be prioritised in wake climate change vagaries 

All these destructive events will have a detrimental effect on human health as well. Flooding can cause a spike in water borne diseases such as diarrhoea and cholera. Rising temperatures are expected to increase the number of people affected by malaria as the illness will spread to new areas, which were unaffected previously. 

Centuries old cropping patterns and modes of livelihoods are at risk of being lost forever. Rising temperatures will result in increased threat of drought and famines. A rise in night time temperatures will mean crops will wither away or yield lesser harvests, thereby potentially resulting in malnutrition. A report by the United Nations Environment Program states that due to the heat farmers will be forced to slash their working days by two to three hours per day. Such loss of livelihood and habitat will force migration to cities and urban areas causing over-populated cities to come under yet more stress. 

The link between climate change and public health is now clearer than ever. India with its minimal health budget is woefully underprepared to provide cheap and accessible healthcare facilities. Emergency medical facilities to deal with heat stress are not sufficiently conceived. That the priorities of our government are misplaced is also evident from the fact that the cost of fossil fuel subsidies exceeds the cost of healthcare by eight times. Climate change is not an isolated area of public policy. It requires immediate and massive preventive and responsive action by the government to make healthcare accessible to people whose health and well-being are the most threatened due to conditions to which they contributed the least.  

(This article has been written by Zeenat Masoodi who is a Lawyer from Srinagar and is also a COP 22 online fellow for Climate Tracker)