Warming May Impact Asia-Pacific Region
Monday, July 2, 2007; 5:34 PM
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia -- Rising temperatures are expected to have a huge impact on people's health in the Asia-Pacific region, causing more of everything from food poisoning to malaria, scientists said Monday.
Delegates at a conference in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, painted a bleak future for the health of those living in the world's most populous region if steps are not taken now to address climate change.
Scientists said 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 drownings, injuries and disease.
"We have now reached a critical stage at which global warming has already seriously impacted the lives and health of the people," said Shigeru Omi, director of the World Health Organization's Western Pacific region.
"This problem will pose an even greater threat to mankind in coming decades if we fail to act now," he said.
Conference delegates, including officials from 16 countries, said it is important for policy-makers to understand the link between greenhouse gas emissions and health.
They called on countries to devote more resources to address health issues already plaguing the region to help lessen the blow as the effects of climate change become more dire. Tax incentives and pricing policies were suggested as a way to get companies and consumers to become more environmentally friendly.
Moving toward energy-efficient technologies and greener buildings _ especially in large, rapidly developing countries such as India and China _ can also make a difference.
"The problem is the management of rapid growth on the one hand and environmental protection on the other," said Carlos Corvalan, coordinator of WHO's Interventions for Healthy Environments unit in Geneva. "The easy way out is fast development that pollutes and we worry about it later. But countries need to realize that there's going to be a cost somewhere _ either you pay it now or you pay it in the future."
The Asia-Pacific already is feeling the effects of global warming, with climate change directly or indirectly linked to some 77,000 deaths each year in the region _ about half the global total of deaths blamed on climate change _ according to WHO.
That figure does not include deaths linked to urban air pollution, which kills more than 400,000 people annually in China alone. Last month, China passed the United States to become the largest greenhouse gas emitter, according to the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency.
Omi noted that heat-related deaths in Shanghai, China, had jumped three times above the norm in 1998 when a massive summer heat wave drove temperatures to about 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit).
Singapore has seen a correlation between rising temperatures and the number of dengue fever cases, with mean annual temperatures climbing from 26.9 C (80.4 F) in 1978 to 28.4 C (83.1 F) 20 years later. Dengue fever cases jumped 10-fold during that time, he said.
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.
The meeting comes two months after the third in a series of major climate change reports was released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a U.N. network of 2,000 scientists.
The four-day workshop in Malaysia lays the groundwork for a ministerial-level meeting on the topic next month in Bangkok, Thailand.
A chapter of the IPCC report devoted to health says food and water supplies will be hit by global warming in some areas, with the poorest countries in Asia and Africa expected to suffer the most.
It said increasing 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.