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Climate Change and Egypt’s Public Health

13 September, 2017
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According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the worldwide number of deaths caused by climate change is rapidly increasing, whether indirectly through diseases like malaria, diarrhea, malnutrition and respiratory diseases, or directly through extreme weather conditions like droughts, heat waves and floods.

In Egypt, with its almost 100 million citizens, threats posed by extreme weather conditions are already a reality. In 2015, the Egyptian Ministry of Health registered more than 100 deaths due to extreme summer heat waves. In that same year, news reported that 11 citizens had lost their lives in the abnormal winter floods in Affouna village in Wadi El Natroun, Abou Homos and El-Rahamania. With a majority of its population living near water surfaces, Egypt is also very sensitive to climate-induced rising sea levels.

The WHO’s Climate and Health Country Profile on Egypt gives a rather pessimistic prognosis when it comes to indirect climate change impacts on the health Egyptians: If the world continues with business as usual, around 1,000 children are predicted to die annually from diarrhea by 2050. Between 2070 and 2100, floods are expected to affect 2.4 million Egyptian citizens.

“Climate change knows neither national nor continental borders,” said German Ambassador to Egypt Julius Georg Luy. “It's effects have become tangible for people everywhere around the globe,” he asserted in his opening speech for the 49th session of Cairo Climate Talks, a series conceived, organized and hosted as a cooperative effort between the German Embassy in Cairo and the Egyptian Ministry of Environment.

Luy strongly recommended more solution-driven projects like the GIZ “Adaptation to Climate Change in the Health Sector” program on behalf of the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development. He further encouraged better monitoring and long-term planning for health systems and communities to become more climate resilient as well as to react appropriately and in a timely manner to the negative effects of climate change on health.

Hans-Guido Mücke, a scientist at the department of Environmental Hygiene at the German Environment Agency and manager of the Collaborating Centre for Air Quality Management and Air Pollution Control at the World Health Organization (WHO), addressed the similarity between Egypt, Germany and the Netherlands in terms of their water-spread landscapes that require common forms of support mechanisms.

“We all need to be prepared for precipitation, and to have stringent policies for coastal protection and functional drainage systems to prepare for long-term disaster prediction,” Mücke said, underlining the role of research and surveillance to predict future health impacts, determine what can be avoided and prepare for the inevitable. He urged for investments in health education, reflecting on Germany’s technique of involving different kinds of climate change messages in schools to prepare students for abnormal events as well as build healthy habits in society on a continuing basis.

Ragia Elgerzawy, Health and Discrimination Officer at the Right to Health Program at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), stated that both infectious and noninfectious diseases will be magnified due to climate change. She explained that cardio and pressure disease rates will grow with the increasing temperature. “Diarrhea cases will be amplified, as it is more likely for pathogens to grow in warm water. A lot of children are already suffering.”

She pointed out that currently 30% of the children below 5 years are beneath the average weight and height. “This percentage will drastically inflate if we don’t act,” she said, explaining how vector diseases like malaria, dengue fever, schistosoma and bilharzia might increase with the extended water surfaces.

Commenting on the direct impact of air pollution on health due to the use of coal, Elgerzawy said: “We should limit the use of coal as much as possible and entirely prevent cement factories from construction in the domestic areas.”

Nehal Hefny, undersecretary general for programs and projects at the Egyptian Red Crescent (ERC), discussed how people in Ras Ghareb needed new antidotes for venoms of reptiles that never existed in this area before. Psychological support for families, and especially children, who were traumatized by these disaster incidents was a new need that Hefny observed in Ras Ghareb. After 20 years of work in informal areas, ERC has some knowledge to share on the Zeinhom and Dweika areas for anyone who wants to have similar health projects. “There are very high rates of Diarrhea and respiratory diseases, but they are often underrated and unlinked to climatic conditions. If those rates multiply in the future due to climate change, will the existing facilities be able to cover all the patients?” She admitted that very concerning questions are left unanswered: Are we preparing our communities for climate change complications?

Hefny proposed a new angle to look at how health problems can be offset. “Communities suffer from a problem, but they also have the solution,” she said, highlighting how powerful very simple measures can be when embraced by the communities themselves. Those could include having healthy kitchens where people learn to use affordable materials to prepare healthy food that can limit malnutrition. “Those solutions must be documented, shared and spread. Efforts need to be mapped,” she determined.

“Egypt’s Intended Nationally Determined Contribution has been submitted to the UNFCCC in 2015, a national council for climate change has been established in 2016 and the national adaptation plan has been proposed in 2017 in order to receive a grant from the green climate fund,” stated Sherif Abdelrehim, Head of Climate Change Department at the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency (EEAA), stressing the EEAA’s efforts in putting climate change adaptation at the top of the national agenda, as well as integrating such policies into the national sustainable development strategy. He underscored the role of non-governmental organizations and the private sector in further collaborating in increasing national capacity to adapt to all the upcoming changes in the climate.

Saber Osman, Climate Change Adaptation Manager at the EEAA, highlighted the importance of the Paris Agreement and he assured that in the EEAA’s efforts to spread awareness about climate change in the government, they lobbied in the parliament to accelerate the ratification process, which eventually took place in June 2017.

Osman also announced their new strategy to encourage bottom up development. “In co-operation with the meteorological authority, we are developing an interactive map on climate change through monitoring the rise in sea level.” He then explained that this map will provide useful information for other ministries and organizations to pinpoint the gaps and fill in the needs in different geographical locations. “The map is expected to be ready in a year,” he disclosed.

Elgerzawy’s thoughts were that environmental issues and climate change are not yet on the top of Egypt’s political agenda. “We need to educate, not only the parliament, but also the ministries and the government. We need more than good laws, we have laws, some of them are very good, some of them are improving, but the implementation is just not good enough to achieve the purpose behind them,” she concluded.

Two needs were commonly pointed out by all four panelists: psychological impacts on children as well as neurological impacts on the elderly as a result of natural disasters must be taken more seriously in both developing and developed countries. More symptoms monitoring, data gathering and knowledge sharing are crucial for the whole world to curtail, or hopefully avoid, the health impacts of climate change on humans as much as possible. 

Photo credit: Cairo Climate Talks' Facebook page

Tags Cairo Climate Talks Egypt Germany Climate change Environment public health