LAST MONTH at the World Health Organisation conference on climate change in Copenhagen, WHO experts outlined the impact of climate change on human health, and how improvements in environmental conditions could reduce the global disease burden by more than 25 per cent.
The WHO has estimated that about 150,000 people die each year in developing countries as a result of the consequences of climate change – crop failures and subsequent malnutrition, gastrointestinal diseases, malaria and flooding.
A recent discussion paper from the Menzies Centre for Health Policy highlights the considerable health, social and economic consequences of climate change in the developing countries of the Pacific Ocean, where fragile environments, failing economies, poor population health, and a shortage of needed workforce skills mean there are fewer resources to prevent and manage them.
The Pacific Islands are among the most environmentally vulnerable countries in the world, already prone to climate-associated disasters such as tropical cyclones, flash floods and droughts, which impose serious constraints on development in these islands. Climate change is expected to increase the frequency and severity of these events.
The impacts of these disasters are hardest to address in the smallest and most isolated Pacific Island countries, many of which are low-lying atolls and carry the burdens of poverty: low levels of household income, lack of piped water supply, poor sanitary conditions and growing incidences of lifestyle-related diseases.
Progress towards the achievement of the unfulfilled Millennium Development Goals appears to be losing momentum in a number of Pacific Island countries, and the impact of the global financial crisis will further slow this progress.
There is a plethora of initiatives in Pacific Island countries that are operated and funded by a wide range of government and non-government organisations and aimed at addressing environmental and health problems and the underlying issues such as poverty and governance that aggravate these problems and hinder their solution.
But the volume of reports from these organisations is not matched by up-to-date data that facilitate planning and the measurement and evaluation of results. What data there are highlight that there is much more work to be done, and that timelines for action are increasingly short.
This is a geopolitical region where Australia and the United States have major interests – territorial responsibilities, trade and security – reinforced by strong cultural ties as a consequence of the large number of Pacific Islanders now resident in both countries. Australia and the US are important sources of aid and technical support to these countries. Their leadership, cooperation and resources will be essential in the international effort to improve and sustain the environment and health status in Pacific Island nations and territories.
Lesley Russell is the Menzies Foundation Fellow at the Menzies Centre for Health Policy, University of Sydney/Australian National University, and a Research Associate at the United States Studies Centre, University of Sydney.