Understanding the connections between protecting the natural environment and safeguarding human health is the key to sustainable development in Africa.



The impact of the environment on individual and community health is profound. Nowhere is this reality more keenly felt than on the African continent, where a large proportion of the disease burden is determined by environmental factors, and where many people and communities live in habitats that are extremely vulnerable to environmental change.

Africa has long been affected by problems relating to poor infrastructure, inadequate sanitation and limited access to safe drinking water. Today, the continent is also facing an array of additional new challenges, including climate change and the impacts of rapid and poorly planned urbanisation. Climatic shifts, and the continuing degradation of ecosystems and natural resources, will only exacerbate the risks for Africa’s human populations.

More direct climate-change impacts occur through extreme weather events, including heatwaves, droughts, floods and storms, all of which have been experienced on the continent in recent years. Flooding also causes extensive indirect health effects, including impacts on food production, water provision, ecosystem disruption, infectious disease outbreaks and vector distribution.

In addition, vector-borne diseases, diarrhoeal diseases and malnutrition are all influenced by seasonal climate variability, and are predicted to worsen with increasing temperatures. Already, about 28% of Africa’s disease burden, largely dominated by malaria, respiratory infections and diarrhoea, is significantly attributed to environmental risk factors.

This imposes very heavy economic and social costs, making it even more difficult to achieve key development goals, including poverty reduction and health targets.

Previous assessments of this situation have underscored the low levels of awareness and political will that are hampering efforts to mitigate the impact of environmental change on human health. Clear communication on the problems and potential solutions is called for. Only through understanding the mechanisms behind these climate-health interlinkages can Africa’s governments introduce effective interventions to help reduce negative impacts.