The force of the wind that whips through the cities of South Africa's Eastern Cape province is capable of generating energy. But on a hot, dry day, those winds can gather embers and dump them into the tinder-dry savannah and forest, destroying crops, fodder and homes, as well as claiming lives.
Wildfires create their own weather systems and generate firestorms with devastating effects.
Global warming will increase the number of days of intense heat, and this will produce ideal conditions for fires. In recent months, southern Europe and North Africa have experienced record-breaking temperatures and ferocious fires with terrible effects on human lives, habitat and the environment. The Southern Hemisphere will be the next to experience this situation.
However, the leading cause of death worldwide is heat, not fire. The extreme temperatures recorded in Europe and the United States portend future changes on a global scale. Southern African countries, parts of eastern Africa and Madagascar are expected to see rapid increases in temperatures until the end of this century.
Africa, on the brink of the climate abyss: "Never before has the expression 'change or die' been so true"
I am an anthropologist and academic in the field of public health, working in Australia and South Africa. These two countries are recurrently affected by the El Niño-Southern Oscillation and the consequent rise in sea levels, with floods, droughts and rising temperatures in their wake. The combination of global warming and El Niño suggests that in the coming years the devastating effects will be ever greater.
Reports from multilateral agencies such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and national agencies such as the U.S. Global Change Research Program show that high temperatures can be deadly and that vast populations around the world are vulnerable to this situation. High temperatures cause heat stroke, heat stroke, heart attacks, strokes and other cardiovascular diseases.
More heatwaves will occur in South Africa, increasing the likelihood of heatwave-related deaths. People who are especially vulnerable to overheat stress are those who live in slums and in dilapidated and overcrowded buildings. Cities are also hot spots: heat absorbed by roads and buildings causes the urban "heat island" effect, while increased energy use for cooling increases greenhouse gas emissions.
Less Food, Less Nutrition
On the African continent, food security is directly threatened by extreme events, but also, more generally, by climate change and global warming. In South Africa, drought is recurrently wreaking havoc on subsistence farming, livestock and cash crops. This situation has already sparked an interest in local strategies to address food insecurity.
The impact of drought on food and nutrition will fall on the most vulnerable, such as infants, young children and pregnant women, and those already living at or below the poverty line.
Across the continent, many people depend on subsistence agriculture, and in the absence of food or water, there is likely to be an increase in migration and humanitarian crises. In South Africa, a large part of the population also depends on subsistence or other small-scale agriculture. Crop failures and drought, along with rising food costs due to the disruption of global food resources, will ultimately harm us all.
In addition to the risk factors mentioned above, there is water scarcity. Humans need proper hydration to survive. Water scarcity, combined with rising temperatures, increases the risk of organ failure and death. In addition, relying on poor quality and contaminated water has consequences for domestic and personal hygiene, as well as intestinal infections.
Vibrio cholerae (the bacterium that causes cholera) is present in the water channels of all countries, both high- and low-income. Infection with this bacterium can be mild. However, if not intervened quickly to prevent severe dehydration, the increased concentration of the bacteria can be lethal. The sharp rise in cholera and other diarrhoeal diseases around the world is linked to rising temperatures and drought.
Other viral and bacterial infectious diseases—especially prevalent in Africa—are also likely to increase with global warming. The so-called neglected diseases of poverty include vector-borne parasitic and viral diseases such as Rift Valley fever, malaria, filariasis, schistosomiasis, dengue, chikungunya and influenza, as well as arboviruses, such as the various influenza pathogens.
How climate change will affect different vector-borne diseases will vary. One of the risk factors is stagnant and polluted water.
There is growing evidence of mosquitoes migrating to higher altitudes, infecting people never before exposed. At the same time, there is growing evidence of vector behaviour change and insecticide resistance in some settings, such as the Ifakara region of Tanzania.
When the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was created in 1988, we had an alternative to curb climate change and slow global warming. Globalization, national policies and global capitalism have caused us to fail and, 35 years later, we face an inevitable crisis. This doesn't mean we can't do anything to stop the destruction of life on the planet. An urgent and radical change is needed in the way energy is supplied and used, in the way we live and in the living conditions of those who, due to their day-to-day circumstances, are most exposed to the lethal effects of global warming.
Lenore Manderson is Distinguished Professor of Public Health and Medical Anthropology at the University of the Witwatersrand (South Africa).
This article was originally published on The Conversation.
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