Development & Aid, Environment, Tierramerica

Climate Change a Challenge to Human Species

MONTEVIDEO, Apr 7 2008 (IPS) - More people need to begin sustainable lifestyle practices in order to confront climate change, says Mirta Roses, director of the Pan-American Health Organization, in an exclusive Tierramérica interview.

Mirta Roses, director of PAHO - PAHO

Mirta Roses, director of PAHO - PAHO

World Health Day, celebrated Apr. 7, is a good opportunity to “call attention to the fact that the survival of humanity is at stake” because of climate change, according to Mirta Roses, director of the Pan-American Health Organization.

Authorities and communities must “take on whatever responsibility that they can in order to contribute to a more stable environment,” reduce the vulnerability of populations in high-risk zones and in poverty, such as indigenous communities, said the Argentine surgeon, an expert in infectious diseases, in a telephone conversation with Tierramérica from Washington DC.

TIERRAMERICA: What are the principal health threats that climate change brings to Latin America?

MIRTA ROSES: One of the most well known, by changing the usual patterns of temperature, atmospheric pressure, humidity, etc., occurs in the distribution of diseases, as well as vectors, which generally are insects. These also modify, for example, the seasonal cycles that had prevented the dissemination of diseases. So new ones appear or others expand, such as respiratory illnesses, yellow fever, malaria or dengue, which now extends across the continent. Climate change gives way to a higher frequency of phenomena like hurricanes and periods of drought followed by excessive rains, which especially affect the most vulnerable, the communities that live in high-risk zones and in poverty.

TA: What concrete measures is PAHO taking?

MR: We are trying to promote individual and community measures against aggravating the factors that contribute to climate change. Health is a sector of high energy consumption, through hospitals and other services, which is why we have to help with a better management of the means, techniques and patterns of consumption. We are also working on the disposal of dangerous sanitary waste.

TA: How are these recommendations turned into practice? MR: To lead by example, we are developing a plan that we call “Green PAHO”, to learn starting from habit and institutional culture, and from the organization's workers. But our usual work is with the health ministries, and that is how we expand the circle of awareness and practitioners of a more sustainable way of life and behavior. We already have experience with the smoking habit: we began at home, declaring PAHO a smoke-free space, and then we convinced the governments.

We are taking action on managing health services and, of course, with areas closely linked like water management, sanitation and waste treatment. We are cooperating with countries on early warning systems and contingency plans, not only to confront the effects of climate change and the increase in natural disasters, but also related to availability of potable water and food.

TA: How is PAHO taking up the usually neglected problem of sanitation?

MR: In the Americas there are about 150 million people who don't have access to safe water and some 130 million without basic sanitation. In this International Year of Sanitation we are highlighting the excluded population. The region experienced this in a very painful way in 1991 when cholera was reintroduced, and it had an impact on people and on economic development, because the water-borne diseases led to many health barriers in trade.

TA: What influence does PAHO have in obtaining financing for extending the sanitation network?

MR: It has been important to demonstrate the evidence. We have had to become experts in order to produce economic impact statements, show how these are related with nutrition, infant and maternal mortality, and development. We have come up with many instruments for analysis, sectoral studies to identify need, and investment plans, and thus win attention from development banks to assist with costly infrastructure projects. On the other hand, a lot of work has been done to improve management of public enterprises for water and sanitation and in training human resources.

TA: What is the response to such actions in the municipalities and the communities?

MR: For nearly 20 years we have been carrying out the Healthy Municipality plan, which encompasses health promotion and disease reduction with an eye to local development and reinforcing the authorities and inter-sectoral action focused on political leaders, neighborhood councils, etc. In most cases it begins precisely with the demands for access to water and sanitation. Also with great sensitivity to the development of simplified technology appropriate for the local culture. We have had a great deal of support from and work with indigenous populations, who have their own conceptions about the harmonious relationship with nature and the search for natural resource.

TA: Tell us about one of those experiences.

MR: We work continuously with indigenous peoples in the Andes and in Paraguay, with the recovery and strengthening of simple technology and investment in community systems for prospecting for water and for disinfecting water for household use. This has helped control cholera, which in 10 years was once again eliminated in the region. Traditional practices have been renewed, like water councils for administration and for maintaining a balance between domestic and agricultural use.

Republish | | Print |

Related Tags