HomeOpinion & AnalysisHealth and climate change in Zimbabwe

Health and climate change in Zimbabwe

By Tariro Chivige and Learnmore Nyamudzanga 

The planet is heating up, changing our climate in ways that are profoundly bad for our health.

In developing countries, the health systems already face many vulnerabilities, including lack of appropriate surveillance systems, early warning systems and challenges related to access to treatments, vaccines, and diagnostics.

Greenhouse gases are damaging our planet.

Our government can no longer afford to ignore issues of climate change, human activities have irreversible negative impacts to the environment. Some of these activities include waste management, industrial development, energy (thermal power) generation, deforestation, use of agriculture manure and fertilizers.

In Zimbabwe climate change has increased the frequency of extreme weather conditions such as drought, dry spells, high intensity floods, storms, tropical cyclones and heat waves.

It has also resulted in changes in weather patterns, growing seasons and regions, water quality and quantity, species distribution and abundance, and changes in temperatures and sea levels.

These negatively impact our health and create food shortages, water shortages, air pollution, loss of homes and livelihoods, mass migration, suffering and death.

Notable weather catastrophes in Zimbabwe include the Tugwi-Mukosi floods of 2013-2014, which led to the displacement of thousands of communities in Masvingo.

According to the final report of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), Cyclone Idai disaster in 2019 affected more than 270 000 people leaving an estimated 341 dead and many others missing.

At least 17 608 households were left homeless, 12 health facilities damaged, water, sanitation and hygiene infrastructure were damaged, 139 schools were affected, 33 primary schools and 10 secondary schools were temporarily closed, and 9 084 learners were affected. Effects of climate change in the form of drought and cyclones were ruthless to this nation that was already on its knees.

According to the National Development Strategy one (NDS1), the country’s cities are the biggest polluters, poisoning rivers, dams and underground water with germ-laden sewage, industrial waste and small-scale miners dumping the worst poison mercury.

In 2020 WHO highlighted that the air quality in Zimbabwe was considered moderately unsafe. The most recent data indicates the country’s annual mean concentration of PM2.5 is 22 µg/m3 which exceeds the recommended maximum of 10 µg/m3.

Nationwide, council water sources are the most polluted and amongst the most polluted water bodies are Lake Chivero, Khami and Umguza dams, Odzi and Dora rivers in Mutare, Darwendale and Biri dams.

This further impacts our health through diarrhoea and typhoid, among other issues.

Furthermore, the Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the close relationship existing among social, natural and economic systems, boosting the necessity to accelerate efforts to address climate change. Covid-19 is not the only infectious disease linked to climate change, World Health Organisation (WHO) has highlighted the link between changing environmental conditions and epidemic diseases.

Recent research on Shifts in global bat diversity suggest a possible role of climate change in the emergence of Covid-19.

The research found that local number of coronaviruses is correlated with bat species richness, and climate change has shifted the global distribution of bats.

Bat richness has strongly increased in the likely origin of Covid-19 and it is concluded that climate change may have been an important factor in the outbreaks of coronaviruses.

Moreover, researchers at Monash in Australia and China’s Shandong University recently estimated that almost 10% of global deaths can be attributed to abnormally hot or cold temperatures .

They also find out that climate change is responsible for five million deaths globally every year, of which 1,2 million deaths occur in Africa.

Climate change affects health through direct exposures, such as heat waves or extreme weather conditions, and through complex exposure pathways, such as altered food yields, water insecurity, and changes in disease transmission and vector ecology.

Heat-waves and forest fires create air pollution which leads to asthma pulmonary diseases and respiratory infections.

It brings health risks worldwide but some populations suffer more than others.

But wherever they are, the groups at greatest risk from climate related health disorders and premature deaths are the same, the poor and the uneducated, the very young, the old and the medically infirm.

These vulnerable people are the first casualties of the infectious diseases that are spreading due to climate change.

In Africa many countries have a high burden of climate sensitive diseases and very poor capacity to respond. Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, Zimbabwe is on record of failing to meet the Abuja declaration and the World Health Organisation (WHO)’s recommended spending of US$86 per capita or 5% of the Gross Domestic Product.

Zimbabwe continues to suffer from climate related diseases even when the 2016-2020 National Health Strategy (NHS) was committed to improve climate change awareness through climate change and health awareness, training of Focal Points and developing a Public Health Adaptation to Climate Change plan.

New outbreaks of deadly diseases are being diagnosed in areas previously unaffected. Malaria is a good example; they are crippling our health.

It’s just that at the moment the focus is on the Covid-19 pandemic.

Heat illness, exacerbate heart and lung conditions, asthma, traumatic injury, water and food board illnesses, allergies, vector-borne diseases and emotional stress are still wreaking havoc within our communities. Some populations are geographically at risk: mountainous regions, water-stressed areas megacities and coastal areas in developing countries.

Those living in small island developing states are considering relocation.

The world’s greatest emitters of greenhouse gases incur the lowest risk to health.

Those who make the least impact on climate change suffer its consequences the most.

There is need for efficient and effective preparedness systems, and also early warning systems, efficient health services and rapid medical responses particularly for the vulnerable.

By reducing the use of cars through the promotion of walking and cycling we will reduce pollution.

We will reduce traffic-related injuries and deaths. More physical activities mean less obesity, heart disease and cancer.

Cleaner fuels, access to electricity and more efficient stoves for cooking and heating mean fewer deaths.

By reducing carbon footprint, we will save money and our health will benefit too.

An effective response to the health impacts of climate change requires global action. We need to raise global awareness of these health impacts. We need to generate scientific evidence; we need to strengthen the health system worldwide. Health doctors, professional’s scientist need to work together.

Respected members of the society need to amplify voices to influence climate change policies and politics.

Health professionals must teach climate health related issues, collect data and carry out climate related health studies.

Political will and sustainable domestic resource mobilisation are crucial if we are to reduce health challenges related to climate change.

A recent South Centre research paper on “Malaria and dengue: understanding two infectious diseases affecting developing countries and their link to climate change” by Mirza Alas found that the impact of climate change on the health sector should be an important consideration as countries develop their national strategies both for the climate sector as well as for the health sector. In doing so some of the areas that would need to be considered include:

  • Increasing investment in research on climate change and health and building monitoring and surveillance systems would be essential for supporting health systems to prepare.
  • Research findings and findings from climate and meteorological surveillance systems can then help inform public health systems and national policies. Health and climate information systems need to work together to prepare and implement climate and health policy responses.
  •  In the case of vector-borne diseases, it will be essential to build understanding and local scientific knowledge related to the risk of emergence in new geographical zones triggered by climate change.
  • Developing countries will need to be supported to continue to provide essential health services in the face of outbreaks or other health emergencies.
  • Adequate climate finance should be made available. Developed countries will need to take the lead in providing financial assistance to developing countries to help adapt strategies that include strengthening health systems to adapt to climate change and health risks, including building adequate health infrastructure, access to clean water and sanitation.
  •  Prepare health systems, individuals, and societies to adapt to infectious diseases’ changes and their patterns of infections by strengthening diagnostics systems, access to appropriate therapies, and increasing preventive measures regarding vector control.
  •  There is a need to strengthen and increase multisectoral collaboration between the environment and the health sectors and find spaces where the health sector can provide policy guidance to other sectors.

*Tariro Chivige  is an economist and Learnmore Nyamudzanga is tax expert and economist.

These weekly articles are coordinated by Lovemore Kadenge, an independent consultant, past president of the Zimbabwe Economics Society and past president of the Institute of Chartered secretaries and Administrators in Zimbababwe. Email: kadenge.zes@gmail.com.



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