Around the venue at Africa Climate Summit. Photo credit: UNFCCC/Lucia Vasquez-2

The impact of climate change on health and livelihoods of farming communities in Africa: A complex and integrated challenge

Last week (4–6 September 2023), Kenya hosted the Africa Climate Summit and Climate Week that aimed to spotlight Africa's immense challenges and potential in confronting climate-related issues, with an emphasis on advocating for equitable financial systems to drive green growth and climate finance solutions for Africa and the world.

In his opening remarks, President William Ruto of Kenya stated that climate action is not a Global North or Global South issue, but the world's collective challenge that affects each individual. He called for united action to find common and global solutions to the problem.

A summit side event on safeguarding human and animal health in a changing environment, led by the One Health Research, Education and Outreach Centre in Africa and supported by the CGIAR Initiative on One Health recognized that ‘global boiling’, a newly coined term by the United Nations secretary-general António Guterres, who called for radical action on climate change, has put many more people and their animals at increased risk of climate-sensitive diseases.

Speakers at Africa Climate Summit Side event: Bernard Bett (ILRI), Naomi Mutie (Ministry of Health, Kenya) and Martin Baraza (VSF-Germany)
Africa Climate Summit 23 side event on on safeguarding human and animal health in a changing environment. Left to right: Bernard Bett (ILRI), Naomi Mutie (Ministry of Health, Kenya) and Martin Barasa (Vétérinaires Sans Frontières–Germany)

According to the National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, between 2004 and 2018, the number of reported illnesses from mosquitoes and ticks more than doubled and nine new germs spread by mosquitoes and ticks were discovered or introduced in the United States of America. The spatial ranges of such biological vectors and the agents they carry have expanded into regions of the world in which they were once not reported.

Disease prediction models have shown that an increase in temperature would lead to an expansion of the current geographical ranges of climate-sensitive diseases.

Bernard Bett, a senior scientist at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) and panellist at the side event, said: ‘We are likely to see increased incidence of epidemics of climate-sensitive infectious diseases with global warming. Climate effects are generic and do not influence one disease at a time and therefore there is a need to understand that epidemics of climate-sensitive diseases may involve multiple diseases at any given time.’

Increased outbreaks of disease, especially zoonotic disease, not only affect the livestock but the farmers as well. This puts a strain on healthcare systems and diverts resources from priority national health concerns.

Naomie Mutie, a public health practitioner at the Kenya Ministry of Health, highlighted the lessons learned from the impact of COVID-19  on the country’s healthcare system. She emphasized the value of early warning systems with predictive capabilities for better preparedness.

The prediction of disease outbreaks is made possible through close collaboration with Kenya Meteorological Department which provides weekly, monthly and seasonal forecasts on changing weather patterns and expected climatic events that can have an impact on health. The Ministry of Health provides necessary public health measures by sending out alerts and advisories on expected climate-related infectious diseases.   

Martin Barasa, regional head of programs at Vétérinaires Sans Frontières–Germany, emphasized that climate-sensitive diseases, some of which are zoonotic, not only contribute to a substantial disease burden in animal and human populations but also have a detrimental impact on the livelihoods of many communities in sub-Saharan Africa.

‘These diseases cause livestock asset losses through mortalities, reduce livestock productivity, reduce livestock products available in markets and reduce incomes as money is used for disease control and case management expenses,’ he said.

Climate-induced infectious and zoonotic diseases are likely to continue having an impact on the livestock sector, which contributes significantly to the gross domestic product of many African nations, unless investments in outbreak containment, disease control and international market access are prioritized. 

‘It is imperative to adopt a One Health approach to address these pressing issues,’ said Daudi Dokata, a farmer from Isiolo County in Kenya, whose testimony highlighted the reliance of pastoralists on livestock for their livelihoods.