Public Release: 

Heatwaves, typhoons, floods, landslides: Researchers detail rising health risks of disasters

Assembled by UNU, 6 papers underline the value of applying science, technology to reduce disaster-related health risks; productivity in many jobs seen falling by up to 40 percent by 2050 due to heat stress; experts convene at UN forum in Malaysia

United Nations University - International Institute for Global Health

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IMAGE: Productivity lost to heat stress in South-East Asia alone is as much as 15 to 20 percent of annual work hours already, a figure that may double by 2050 as... view more

Credit: Asia Pacific Journal of Public Health

The rising price -- in both money and health -- of extreme weather events amid rapid urbanisation, and the corresponding value of applying science and technology to reduce the risks, is underscored in six new research papers formally launched at a UN event today.

Assembled by UN University's Malaysia-based International Institute for Global Health (UNU-IIGH), the papers are published in a special issue of the Asia Pacific Journal of Public Health.

And they help inform a special Forum on Advancing Science and Technology in the Implementation of the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030, hosted in Kuala Lumpur July 19 by UNU-IIGH and the UN Development Programme.

The papers include a warning about large productivity losses due to heat stress, estimating that in South-East Asia alone "as much as 15% to 20% of annual work hours may already be lost in heat-exposed jobs," a figure that may double by 2050 as the planet continues warming.

According to author Tord Kjellstrom of the Health and Environment International Trust, New Zealand: "Current climate conditions in tropical and subtropical parts of the world are already so hot during the hot seasons that occupational health effects occur and work capacity for many people is affected."

Dr. Kjellstrom's paper cites estimated GDP losses due to heat stress for 43 countries: Australia, Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, Costa Rica, Denmark, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Fiji, France, Germany, Ghana, India, Indonesia, Japan, Laos, Malaysia, Maldives, Mexico, Myanmar, Netherlands, New Zealand, Nigeria, Norway, Pakistan, Philippines, Papua New Guinea, Qatar, Russia, Saint Lucia, Samoa, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, Sri Lanka, Sweden, Tanzania, Thailand, Tuvalu, United Kingdom, United States, Vanuatu and Vietnam (see tables at http://bit.ly/29BL0Dn).

The situation in Malaysia is typical of the South-East Asian countries: As work slows or stops to avoid dangerous heat stress, the country's Gross Domestic Product will decline by an estimated 5.9% (value: US $95 billion) by 2030, more than double the estimated 2.8% GDP lost to heat stress in 2010.

According to latest estimates, the global economic cost of reduced productivity may be more than US $2 trillion by 2030. The most susceptible jobs include the lowest paid -- heavy labour and low-skill agricultural and manufacturing.

In 2030, in both India and China, the GDP losses could total $450 billion, although mitigation may be made possible by a major shift in working hours, among other measures employers will need to take to reduce losses.

This problem is already placing major strain on, for example, electricity infrastructure, Dr. Kiellstrom notes. The additional energy needed for a single city the size of Bangkok for each 1°C increase of average ambient temperature can be as much as 2000 MW, roughly the output of a major power plant.

"It is very important to develop and apply adaptation measures now to protect people from the disasters that current climate and slowing changing climate brings," says Dr. Kjellstrom. "However, adaptation is only half an answer -- we must also take decisive action now to mitigate emissions of greenhouse gases. Failure will cause the frequency and intensity of disasters to worsen dramatically beyond 2050, and the situation at the end of this century will be especially alarming for the world's poorest people."

Heat stress is one of several direct and growing impacts on human health due to a warming planet, understanding all of which "is critical in planning for mitigation and adaptation plans," the authors say.

According to the papers:

  • Disastrously heavy rains can expand insect breeding sites, drive rodents from their burrows, and contaminate freshwater resources, leading to the spread of disease and compromising safe drinking water supplies.

  • Warmer temperatures often promote the spread of mosquito-borne parasitic and viral diseases by shifting the vectors' geographic range and shortening the pathogen incubation period.

  • Climate change can worsen air quality by triggering fires and dust storms and promoting certain chemical reactions causing respiratory illness and other health problems.

  • In extreme disasters, harm is often amplified by the destruction of medical facilities and disruption of health services

  • Central and south China can anticipate the greatest number of casualties and highest economic losses from extreme weather events in the Asia Pacific region -- the world's most disaster-prone region -- and a more integrated, multidisciplinary approach is needed to upgrade the nation's emergency response system for natural disasters.

  • From 1980 to 2012, roughly 2.1 million people worldwide died as a direct result of nearly 21,000 natural catastrophes such as floods, mudslides, extreme heat, drought, high winds or fires. The cost of those disasters exceeded $4 trillion (US) -- a loss comparable to the current annual GDP of Germany.

  • In Asia Pacific 1.2 billion people have been affected by 1,215 disasters since the millennium. Some 92% of human exposure to floods occurs in Asia Pacific, along with 91% of exposure to cyclones and two-thirds of all exposure to landslides. Between 1970 and 2011, two million people in the region -- 75% of the world total -- were killed by disasters.

  • From 1993 to 2012, the Philippines experienced the highest number of extreme weather events (311), Thailand experienced the greatest financial loss (US$ 5.4 billion) and Myanmar experienced the highest death rate (13.5 deaths per 100,000 people).

  • In just 40 years, from 1970 to 2010, the regional population exposed to flooding risk more than doubled from about 30 million to 64 million while those in cyclone-prone areas rose from roughly 72 to 121 million.

  • Cities cover 2% of world land cover, generate 60 to 80% of greenhouse gas emissions and half of all waste, and are expanding at a rate of 1 million people per week. In a single generation -- from 2000 to 2030 --urban land extents are expected to have tripled.

The authors underline that fast-rising numbers of people are being exposed to the impacts of climate change, with much of the increase occurring in cities in flood-prone coastal areas or on hills susceptible to mudslides or landslides. Especially vulnerable are people living in poverty, including about one billion in slums.

Cities -- concentrated sources of energy consumption, heat and pollution, covered in surfaces that absorb warmth -- create local heat islands and impair air quality, both threats to health.

And rising demand for cooling contributes to warming the world. Air conditioners not only pump heat out directly, the electricity required is typically produced by burning fossil fuels, adding to atmospheric greenhouse gases. As well, people acclimatized to air conditioning become less heat tolerant, further increasing demand for cooling.

On the other hand, better urban planning presents "tremendous opportunity" to mitigate the health impacts of more extreme weather events.

Urban planners, the authors say, can help by designing cities "in ways that enhance health, sustainability, and resilience all at once," incorporating better building design, facilitating a shift to renewable energy, and fostering the protection and expansion of tree cover, wetlands and other carbon sinks, for example.

To mitigate the health impacts of longer, more severe extreme weather events, the authors stress the need to replace piecemeal reactive responses with integrated, multi-disciplinary planning approaches.

Beyond better preparation and warning systems to improve disaster response, recommended steps include enhancing drainage to reduce flood risks and strengthening health care, especially in poor areas.

In an introduction to the six paper collection, UNU-IIGH Research Fellows Jamal Hisham Hashim and José Siri write that humanity faces "substantial health risks from the degradation of the natural life support systems which are critical for human survival. It has become increasingly apparent that actions to mitigate environmental change have powerful co-benefits for health."


Comments:

"It is not clear yet whether considerations of health and sustainability will overrule the press of economic progress in coming decades, and ethical considerations surrounding the right to development are thorny indeed. What is clear is that tremendous opportunities exist to design cities in ways that enhance health, sustainability, and resilience all at once. Decisions made today will have a profound impact on health around the world for many decades to come. We hope these papers help improve understanding of the complex relationship between global environmental change and health, of the threat climate change poses to hard-won advances in human health worldwide, and of policy options available to mitigate these risks."

Anthony Capon, Director, UNU-IIGH

"The Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction (SFDRR) underlines the increasing importance of science-based decision-making. Public health and disaster risk reduction needs the concerted approach of scientists, policy makers, civil society, the private sector, media and other stakeholders. It is now time to develop "Words into Action" for implementation of the SFDRR."

Michelle Gyles-McDonnough, UN Resident Coordinator and UNDP Resident Representative, Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei Darussalam

"Disasters have killed more than 1.3 million people and cost over US$2 trillion during the last two decades. The only way to protect development gains from disasters and to eradicate poverty is to integrate disaster risk reduction into development and to make all development risk-informed. UNDP will continue to provide support for getting DRR on the political agenda as a cross-cutting development priority, and facilitating the translation of DRR policy frameworks into action at the local level for empowered lives and resilient nations."

Rajib Shaw, Executive Director, Integrated Research on Disaster Risk Programme, China

"This excellent series of peer review papers help to focus attention on the impact of disasters and their health consequences, particularly in South East Asia. The papers summarise the need for emphasis on public health impact measurements as well as stressing the importance of enhanced scientific and technical work on disaster risk reduction. This very welcome series demonstrates that only by documenting the effects of disasters can evidence be provided to support the availability and application of science and technology to inform decision-making during difficult times."

Virginia Murray, Global Disaster Risk Reduction Expert, Public Health England, and vice-chair, Scientific and Technical Advisory Group, United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR)

"People know intuitively that "react and cure" is a far more expensive strategy than "anticipate and prevent." The experts behind these insightful papers, by detailing the high price of inaction in terms of both our finances and our health, greatly strengthen the case for taking defensive steps against disaster risks -- and the sooner the better."

Zakri Abdul Hamid, Science Advisor to the Prime Minister, Malaysia

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The six papers, published by the Asia Pacific Journal of Public Health


Background

The Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030 was agreed at the Third UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction in Sendai, Japan in March 2015 and endorsed by the UN General Assembly in June 2015.

The goal of the Sendai Framework is to prevent new and reduce existing disaster risk through the implementation of integrated and inclusive economic, structural, legal, social, health, cultural, educational, environmental, technological, political and institutional measures that prevent and reduce hazard exposure and vulnerability to disaster, increase preparedness for response and recovery, and thus strengthen resilience.

The outcome expected by 2030 is a substantial reduction in disaster risk and losses in lives, livelihoods and health in the economic, physical, social, cultural and environmental aspects of persons, private sector, communities and countries.

A key feature of the Sendai Framework is the shift of focus from managing 'disasters' to managing 'risks'. Such a shift requires a better understanding of risk in all its dimensions of hazards, exposure and vulnerability.

The role of science and technology in providing the evidence and knowledge on risk features heavily in the Sendai Framework.

The UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR) Science and Technology Conference, held 27-29 January 2016 in Geneva, produced the Science and Technology Roadmap to Support the Implementation of the Sendai Framework.


The UNU and UNDP Joint Public Forum and High Level Roundtable on Advancing Science and Technology in the Implementation of the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030 has the following goals:

  • Raise awareness of the value of science, technology and innovation (STI) for disaster risk reduction
  • Engage key stakeholders in options to build STI capacity in this field, and
  • Identify strategic next steps.

It takes place in Kuala Lumpur Tuesday, 19 July, 9 a.m. to noon (full details: http://bit.ly/29BK7dW).


About UN University

Established in 1973, United Nations University (UNU) is a global think tank and postgraduate teaching organization headquartered in Japan. The mission of the UN University is to contribute, through collaborative research and education, to efforts to resolve the pressing global problems of human development, welfare and survival that are the concern of the United Nations, its Peoples and Member States.

In carrying out this mission, UN University works with leading universities and research institutes in UN Member States, functioning as a bridge between the international academic community and the United Nations system. Through postgraduate teaching activities, UNU contributes to capacity building, particularly in developing countries.

About UNU-IIGH

The UNU International Institute for Global Health was founded in 2007 with a US$ 40 million endowment from the Malaysian Government. Based in Kuala Lumpur, the mission of UNU-IIGH is to build knowledge and capacity for decision-making by the UN system about global health issues.

As part of the International Council for Science (ICSU), UNU-IIGH is a co-sponsor of a 10-year global interdisciplinary science program on Health and Wellbeing in the Changing Urban Environment - A Systems Analysis Approaches.

UNU-IIGH contributions include capacity building in systems methods for population health research; development and evaluation of metrics for healthy urban development, particularly those relevant to low and middle income countries; and leadership training for city planners, elected officials, public health workers and others.

About UNDP

UNDP partners with people at all levels of society to help build nations that can withstand crisis, and drive and sustain the kind of growth that improves the quality of life for everyone. On the ground in more than 170 countries and territories, we offer global perspective and local insight to help empower lives and build resilient nations.

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