Intersection of Conflict and Climate Change ‘Devastating’ to Public Health  
More Effective Responses to Health & Environmental Emergencies through Peacebuilding panelists.

One-half of the countries facing serious climate threats also are located in conflict zones – and that single fact alone illustrates the symbiotic relationship of climate and conflict, and their inter-related impacts on health.  

This was a key message of the Geneva Health Forum panel on ‘Effective Responses to Health and Environmental Emergencies through Peacebuilding’, Thursday 5 April, on the Forum’s closing day.

Environmental degradation negatively impacts economic growth, food security, and through those drivers, public health. All of this, in turn, exacerbates conflict and impedes peace-building efforts by driving instability and displacement, once more worsening people’s health in a vicious cycle. 

“Incorporating the lens of climate risk, and how you factor it into your response is extremely important during most emergencies,” said Micaela Serafini of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), a co-host of the panel. 

Factoring in climate to humanitarian responses 

climate change
Environmental emergencies such as deforestation often overlap with conflict.

If one superimposes a map of conflict with one of environmental degradation, including drought and deforestation, there would be significant overlap, said Elhadj As Sy, Former IFCJ Secretary General noted.  

“If you take the combination of environmental degradation and demographic pressure, we are already creating the conditions for conflict because we are fighting over resources, no longer over diamonds and gold.” 

Livelihood impact diseases from wild animals and livestock devastate rural communities 

Pig farming in Malaysia. Nipah virus passes from pigs to people.

The increased competition for natural resources, such as water and pastures for animals to graze, is a major driver of the migration of people and their livestock, which in turn leads to the ‘transboundary movement of diseases’.

Many of the new diseases to have emerged in recent decades, out of environmental degradation and deforestation, are zoonoses that can also be described as ‘livelihood impact diseases’.  They include the bat-borne Nipah virus that also infects pigs and people in South East Asia, as well as rift valley fever, brucellosis, and avian influenza, which affect livestock and poultry. They impact rural communities, firstly animals and then people – both directly and indirectly.

For rural communities, the direct impacts of infections are only “the tip of the iceberg, ” said Dominique Burgeon, Director Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Liaison Office at UN Geneva. “The diseases are devastating to their livelihoods, which means it also has an impact on food security, and therefore on health and especially the health and nutrition of children in these communities, who are highly dependent on milk and dairy products,

Dominique Burgeon Director, FAO Liaison Office at UN Geneva

With 60% of new human diseases originating from animals, the complex relationship between animal health, environmental health, and human health needs to be considered more deeply, he and other panelists stressed.  

Burgeon referred to ‘One Health’ as a framework for understanding the linkages. One Health, is defined as an “integrated, unifying approach that aims to sustainably balance and optimize the health of people, animals and ecosystems. It recognizes the health of humans, domestic and wild animals, plants, and the wider environment (including ecosystems) are closely linked and inter-dependent.”

Both conflict and climate change have big impacts on animals, through loss of pasture land and water sources for example, Burgeon said: “When it comes to animal health, and therefore going towards human health, conflict can have a huge impact.  

Conversely, strategies for promoting better animal health can help ease conflicts, by reducing the need for people to migrate to keep their animals alive.

“We see that animal health can be a pathway for peace, because at the end of the day, what we see is that those communities are highly dependent on livestock,” Burgeon concluded.  

Humanitarian organizations need to look at their own carbon footprint

Micaela Serafini, International Committee of the Red Cross (IFCJ).

Along with promoting more sustainable environments in fragile conflict zones, the humanitarian sector’s own climate footprint also needs greater consideration, Serafini said.  

“How do you factor in climate risks in your health response?” asked Serafini. “It’s essential to construct or support a system to become resilient to climate events that can overturn whatever investment in health you wanted, or what you were able to do.

“What is it we leave behind once the emergency has finished? How conscious are we of our own [carbon] footprint?” 

Image Credits: Jami Dwyer, GHF, KeWynn Lee, GHF.

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