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How Climate Change Affects Nutrition and NCDs

Non-communicable diseases (NCDs) have become an urgent issue many African nations have committed themselves to addressing. Global projections suggest that by 2030, NCDs will be the leading cause of death in Africa (WHO, 2022). Science shows us nutrition can improve this dramatically. Good nutrition and dietary choices reduce the risk factors of developing NCDs as well as aid in the treatment and management of these diseases. Preventative medicine specifically discusses the critical role different fruits, vegetables, and grains play in maintaining and restoring health to manage NCDs (Daniele, 2019). When examining barriers to good dietary habits we see that climate change is a major threat to preventative nutrition. 

In the past twenty years, vector-borne diseases (transmission from animals to humans) and water-borne diseases (caused by natural disasters) have been the most common forms of public health events (WHO, 2022). High temperatures due to climate change dramatically decrease the availability of clean and accessible water sources. In addition to increasing temperatures, rising sea levels, extreme weather conditions, and unpredictable rainfall all contribute to poor food production. All of this can lead to food insecurity, economic instability, and poverty— three risk factors that contribute to NCDs.

Nutrition-related NCDs typically occur due to malnutrition or when your body is either not receiving or effectively using nutrients needed from food (NCD Alliance, 2021). Malnutrition presents itself both by being underweight (i.e. stunted growth) or being overweight (i.e. obesity). Since it manifests in these two ways, countries are facing difficulty addressing bother undereating and overeating. With climate change, however,  the availability of safe food and water is limited, leading to food insecurity and issues caused by undereating. To address this rise in malnutrition caused by climate change, it is clear the only effective strategy for reducing NCDs is to utilize a multi-sectoral approach. 

In Africa, the threats of climate change are considered even more concerning due to the role economic significance of agriculture. The African Climate Policy Centre conducted an economic projection to see just how impactful climate change will be on GDP. They found that increasing the global climate anywhere within the range of 1 °C to 4 °C will reduce Africa’s net GDP by 2.25% to 12.12% (United Nations, 2020). This drastic drop in GDP is a call for government intervention in climate change. Additionally, food insecurity rates are worsening due to climate change. It is projected that at the worst rates, climate change will reduce the main yield of crops by 13% in West and Central Africa, 11% in North Africa, and 8% in Southern and East Africa (United Nations, 2020). 

The threats climate change poses to health is what led to 52 African nations signing the 2008 Libreville Declaration, a petition to address and prevent unhealthy environments caused by climate change. Climate change and health are still being addressed by political leaders as a major concern for the well-being of Africans across the continent. At the 2022 World Health Day in Rakops Village, the Assistant Minister of Health, Sethome Lelatisitswe, stated “climate change primarily affects the vulnerable populations and individuals with existing health conditions. It also impacts access to healthcare delivery services and disrupts primary healthcare infrastructure.” (WHO, 2022). 

The interactions between climate change, agriculture, and health and well-being present a complicated issue requiring solutions across many sectors. Changing weather patterns and resource availability largely affect food sourcing and agricultural practices, both having major impacts on the health and well-being of African communities. The WHO encourages all nations to develop their own Health National Adaptation Plans (H-NAPs) which constrict a national health and safety plan for climate-related health disasters that may occur. All sectors at the national and local levels need to cooperate and coordinate efforts to prepare for efficient delivery of health services during extreme conditions and even climate change will prevent. Through coordinated efforts, it is possible to mitigate the public health threats climate change poses. 

About Author: Preetha Raj is a Master of Public Health Student from the Colorado School of Public Health. Her interests include health services and systems, healthcare financing, and global health. She currently serves as a research assistant at the Centers for American Indian and Native Alaskan Health at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus.


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