Associated Press, July 3, 2007


[Rachel's introduction: The World Health Organization estimates climate change has already directly or indirectly killed more than 1 million people globally since 2000.]

By Margie Mason

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) -- Rising temperatures are contributing to more landslides in Nepal, dengue fever cases in Indonesia and flooding in India, threatening to put an even greater strain on health systems across the Asia-Pacific region.

Health officials from more than a dozen countries, ranging from tiny Maldives to China, met Tuesday in Malaysia to outline health problems they are experiencing related to climate change. They discussed ways to work together to limit the impact in a region expected to be hit hard by flooding, drought, heat waves, and mosquito- and waterborne diseases.

The World Health Organization estimates climate change has already directly or indirectly killed more than 1 million people globally since 2000. More than half of those deaths have occurred in the Asia- Pacific, the world's most populous region. Those figures do not include deaths linked to urban air pollution, which kills about 800,000 worldwide each year, according to WHO.

"We're not going to have a magic bullet to fix climate change in the next 50 years. We need to motivate an awful lot of people to change their behavior in a lot of different ways," said Kristie Ebi of WHO's Global Environmental Change unit, a lead author of the health chapter in a report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a U.N. network of 2,000 scientists.

Ebi said health officials are about a decade behind other sectors, such as water and agriculture, in taking a look at what climate change could mean and how to deal with it. She said countries seeing the effects firsthand are now starting to realize that any problems with air, water or food will directly affect people's health. The poorest countries in Asia and Africa are expected to suffer the most.

Scientists have predicted droughts will lower crop yields and raise malnutrition in some areas, dust storms and wildfires will boost respiratory illnesses, and flooding from severe storms will increase deaths by drowning, injuries and diseases such as diarrhea. Rising temperatures could lead to the growth of more harmful algae that can sicken people who eat shellfish and reef fish. People living in low- lying coastal areas will also face more storms, flooding, and saltwater intrusion into fresh groundwater that is vital for drinking.

Many health systems in poor Asian countries are already overwhelmed with diseases like HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis, and officials have been under intense international pressure to combat bird flu outbreaks and prepare for a pandemic despite limited resources.

But tackling current pressing diseases, and investing more in public health systems overall, will help prepare countries for the future effects of global warming while saving money in the long run, said Dr. Shigeru Omi, head of the WHO's Western Pacific region.

"The economic impact will be seen eventually," he said, adding water scarcity could create a worst-case scenario that produces political instability. "I think it will pay off if we take action now."

Globalization, urbanization and the rapid development of many Asian countries are also fueling climate change that's already noticeable. Last month, China passed the United States to become the largest greenhouse gas emitter, according to the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency.

Singapore saw mean annual temperatures increase 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit between 1978 and 1998, while the number of dengue fever cases jumped 10-fold during the same period.

Malaria has recently reached Bhutan and new areas in Papua New Guinea for the first time. In the past, mosquitoes that spread the disease were unable to breed in the cooler climates there, but warmer temperatures have helped vector-borne diseases to flourish.

Melting of glaciers in the Himalayas has also created about 20 lakes in Nepal that are in danger of overflowing their banks, which could create a torrent of water and debris capable of wiping out villages and farms below.

Omi said governments can offer tax incentives to help motivate companies to become more environmentally friendly, while pushing for energy-efficient technologies and greener buildings. Promoting walking and bicycling, instead of driving, can also improve overall health while saving the environment.

The four-day workshop in Malaysia lays the groundwork for a ministerial-level meeting on the topic next month in Bangkok, Thailand.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press