Turning the Tide: Health Community Turns to UNFCCC for Inclusivity

Community Health Assistants from Kenya. Credit: Friday Phiri/Amref
Community Health Assistants from Kenya. Credit: Friday Phiri/Amref
  • by Friday Phiri (bonn)
  • Inter Press Service

"Knowing that some of the difficulties we are currently facing are a result of climate change is assisting us in understanding which diseases are prevalent when it's dry or during heavy rains. That way, we can increase awareness of which of the diseases that commonly occur in Mandera, especially malaria, dengue fever, and cholera, are likely to spread depending on the season,” are the sentiments of health assistants only identified as Nasra, Salima, Samlina and Ubah.

They are among over 100 Community Health Assistants (CHAs) from Mandera County in Kenya who are part of on-going country-wide training by Amref Health Africa to build capacity on essential skills to tackle health challenges.

This exemplifies the different layers of challenges that climate change creates for the health sector, not only altering disease spread and patterns but also complicating service delivery.

It is for this reason that at the just-ended 77th World Health Assembly (WHA 77) in Geneva, Switzerland, the 194 member states of the World Health Organization (WHO) adopted a historic resolution on Climate Change and Health.

The landmark decision marks a pivotal step in the global endeavor to protect communities from the diverse negative health impacts driven by climate change, as well as calling on the health sector to decarbonize.

The escalating climate crisis is a major driver of poor health outcomes, threatening to reverse five decades of progress in development, global health, and poverty reduction while exacerbating existing health disparities both between and within populations. The associated health damage costs are estimated to range between USD 2-4 billion annually by 2030. Regions with fragile health infrastructures, particularly in developing countries, will face the greatest challenges in coping without substantial assistance to bolster their preparedness and response capabilities.

“The movement to position health as ‘the human face of climate change’ has gained significant momentum with the adoption of this resolution, and I am profoundly optimistic about its transformative potential,” said Dr. Githinji Gitahi, Group Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Amref Health Africa and the COP28 Climate and Health Envoy for Africa.

“This marks a pivotal moment where global leaders have formally acknowledged the urgent need to address the intertwined crises of environmental and public health with a unified, collaborative approach.”

However, there is still some work to be undertaken, as health is not yet part of the mainstream agenda of climate negotiations at the global level. The health community has the daunting task of navigating its way into the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) processes for a comprehensive global agenda on climate and health.

It is worth noting, however, that there have been efforts at the global and regional levels, such as at COP26 in Glasgow, where the health community reached an important milestone in bringing human health to the forefront of climate change work, with initiatives to support countries in developing climate-resilient and low-carbon sustainable health systems.

At COP28, the Climate and Health Declaration articulated similar commitments, including pledges of financial support to the sector in support of climate and health actions.

At the 60th session of the UN Climate Change Subsidiary Bodies (SB60) in Bonn, Germany, the African constituency is seeking ways to actively engage in the discourse and ensure that Africa’s interests in relation to the impacts of climate change on health are well noted.

During the preparatory meeting of the African Group of Negotiators prior to the SB60, AGN outgoing Chair, Zambia, raised the climate and health agenda and encouraged negotiators to take keen interest and actively engage in the climate and health discourse to set Africa’s agenda, particularly in the Global Goal on Adaptation’s UAE-Belem work programme on indicators where health is one of the thematic targets.

“A crucial point for us to ponder under the UAE-Belem work programme is the inclusion of health as one of the thematic targets. Instead of waiting for this agenda to be set by others, we should, as a group, be actively involved. The work programme offers a window for us to input in terms of how health should be mainstreamed into climate negotiations. As AGN, we have the AAI, which stands out as a shining example of our capacity to set our own agenda in these processes,” said Dr. Alick Muvundika, representing Zambia, as outgoing Chair of the AGN.

Paragraph 9(c) of the GGA decision at COP28 urges Parties and invites non-Party stakeholders to pursue the objectives of the GGA and increase ambition and enhance adaptation action and support in order to accelerate swift action at scale and at all levels, from local to global, in alignment with other global frameworks, towards; attaining resilience against climate change-related health impacts, promoting climate-resilient health services, and significantly reducing climate-related morbidity and mortality, particularly in the most vulnerable communities.

In view of the decision, the health sector in Africa, led by Amref Health Africa and partners, is leading efforts in support of Africa’s active engagement in the UAE-Belem Work programme on indicators for the GGA framework, as well as general technical support for mainstreaming health in climate policies and plans.

During a meeting of African Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) with AGN Chair at the on-going SB60, Amref Health Africa Director for Population Health and Environment, Martin Muchangi, said climate change is complicating health interventions and delivery, adding that “the visible impacts highlight that health is the human face of climate change.”

Muchangi briefed the AGN Chair on Amref’s availability and readiness to support the group to ensure that the yet-to-be developed indicators and related metrics of the health thematic target in the GGA framework would be in line with Africa’s aspirations in view of the continent’s unique circumstances and vulnerability.

“Amref and partners stand ready to support and ensure that the impacts of climate change on health are systematically addressed through investments, capacity building, building strong and resilient health systems, and ensuring that the voice of reason and science gets us where we want to be,” added Muchangi.

And AGN Chair Ali Mohamed welcomed the World Health Organization (WHO) resolution on climate and health, saying it was a step in the right direction.

Ambassador Mohamed challenged CSOs to heavily invest in research for Africa’s positions to be founded on well-grounded evidence, saying the continent continues grappling with climate-induced challenges, thereby worsening most countries’ debt portfolios.

“I am aware of the climate and health agenda as the WHO passed a resolution last week. This is a welcome move amid the visible impacts of climate change on health. The impacts on infrastructure, water and all other sectors are ultimately on human health. For us, health is one of the thematic targets of the Global Goal on Adaptation and we are ready as a group to engage further on the matter,” said the AGN Chair.

“My plea is for us, and I challenge you as CSOs to invest in research. Let's generate a formidable base of evidence, building on the existing evidence base of Africa’s vulnerability and disproportionate impacts of climate change so that our arguments in these processes are well informed and clear,” added ambassador Mohamed.

Amidst all this, a recent report by the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA), titled “Building Africa’s Resilience to Global Economic Shocks," indicates that climate shocks generally are highly correlated with the cyclical component of GDP growth and not with the long-term trend in Africa, which suggests that part of the volatility observed in growth emanates from climate-induced shocks.

With the situation already volatile, as highlighted, stakeholders continue to seek integrated interventions, including the mainstreaming of health in climate policies and plans.

Note: The author is the Climate Change Health Advocacy Lead at Amref Health Africa.

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