More drought, dust storms and heavy rains expected to spread disease

Posted on June 15, 2021

Climate change in South Africa has major health risks associated with it, such as new vector-borne diseases emerging from heavy rainfall, malnutrition from poor food security caused by drought, and respiratory diseases caused by dust storms and air pollution. 

Dr Caradee Wright, a researcher at UP’s Department of Geography, Geoinformatics and Meteorology, considered these health risks in a recent article in the journal Environmental Research.

“We are likely to experience increased temperatures that are double the global average of 2 degrees Celsius by the end of the century, which comes with increased risk of heat waves,” says Wright. “Changes in patterns of rainfall and the intensity of rainfall can come with massive floods, which in turn comes with the risk of diarrheal diseases.”

There is ample meteorological data available in South Africa but unfortunately Wright had trouble accessing health data to pair with the climate data for detailed models, especially for dust storms, for instance.

“Instead of focusing on what numbers we couldn’t find, we thought: let's look at what the risks are for South Africa, based on our knowledge of the threats that have been identified around the world and contextualise it from a South African climate change perspective,” she says. To do this, Wright worked with two other UP researchers - Prof Willem Landman, who specialises in meteorology, and Prof Liesl Dyson, who is an expert in severe weather events such as heavy rainfall.

The team put together what Wright calls a “quasi-systematic review” of the current climate data to assess the possible health risks associated with different climate change outcomes. Examples include an increase in respiratory illness caused by air pollution from fossil fuel emissions, and the increased risk of malnutrition caused by poor food security during droughts.

The researchers also point to the increased risk of malaria as mosquito numbers can surge when the perfect storm of heavy rainfall and a lack of predators occur after a prolonged drought. 

The researchers cite the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recommendation that mitigation and adaptation are the best ways to manage the effects of climate change on health in South Africa. Wright and the team suggest efforts from the health sector, like the National Health Insurance, which provide equal access to health care. She said it's also crucial to keep track of health data for tracking climate-sensitive diseases.

Mitigating health risks caused by climate change will require a concerted effort from many sectors that include government policy, the public understanding of climate change, and further research for more precise climate and health models. 

“Every sector has been trying to deal with what’s within their domain, but unfortunately climate change does not work like that. It will take some creative thinking and working across disciplines.”

- Author ScienceLink

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