Last December at the AGU, I heard a presentation of a ground-breaking and troubling study on climate change and public health in the Philippines. Two young researchers charted typhoons and their aftermath, and argued powerfully that our reporting of the damage caused by these powerful but brief storms (one of which landed near Manila in August) is badly flawed, because we fail to consider the "economic deaths" that follow in the year after the storm, and which hit infant girls especially hard.
Jesse Anntilla-Hughes and Solomon Hsiang wrote:
These findings together suggest that female infant deaths following typhoon events are ‘economic deaths’ resulting from economic losses and the resulting household decisions regarding human capital investments and within-household resource allocation. This conclusion that female infants bear a differentially large share of the burden from income loss is consistent with findings from a variety of other contexts (Rosenzweig and Schultz (1982); Rose (1999); Duflo (2000); Duflo (2005); Bhalotra (2010)). Extrapolating these estimates to the entire non-migrant population suggests that approximately 11,000 fe- male infants suffer ‘economic deaths’ in the Philippines every year due to the previous year’s storm season. In contrast, there was an average of 743 ‘trauma deaths’ per year according to official reports for the same period (OFDA/CRED 2009). This suggests that mortality attributable to Filipino typhoons is roughly 1500% of previous estimates.
That's right, "economic deaths" outnumber storm deaths by a factor of 15-1. That's a big problem, but a researcher named Charlotte Kellogg writes that the Philippines and the WHO are working towards an idea for reducing the number of disaster-caused deaths. She asked to post on this subject, and, impressed by her work, I agreed. Here's Charlotte Kellogg, on "The Relationship Between Climate Change and Global Public Health:"
"Global warming is believed to have numerous negative effects on humanity, perhaps most profoundly when it comes to natural disasters. Rising worldwide temperatures are disrupting weather patterns, experts say, which correlates to an increase number of storms and high pressure systems in the atmosphere. The battery of typhoons and flash floods that have subsumed the Asia-Pacific coastline since the start of the summer are but one example of Mother Nature's climate-induced wrath. Short of reversing the damage done, which many warn may be all but impossible, the next best thing for government officials and community leaders to do is to plan and prepare, ensuring htat life-saving infrastructures are in place when disaster strikes.
It has been a dangerous wet summer for the Asian coastline. Japan and parts of North Korea were hit with powerful floods in June, which were followed closely by a series of not two but three typhoons slamming the coast of mainland China. Then, in early August, a monsoon hit just south of Manila in the Philippines, affecting millions and killing at least 85.
"We always say that global warming or climate change does not explain, or cause, specific weather events or disasters. But one of the consequences of climate change, according to climate scientists, is a higher frequency of extreme rainfall events," CNN said in a special reporting examining the Asian storms. "We will likely see more flooding disasters around East Asia over the next couple of months as the tropics heat up and cyclones traverse those hard-hit areas from the Philippines all the way to North Korea."
Aside from the destruction and economic costs of these storms, there are also a number of public health issues. Most of the time, intense flooding leads to widespread power outages, as well as food shortages and loss of freshwater resources. Standing water and disrupted sewage lines are conduits for disease. In the summer, when temperatures are warm, many are vulnerable to heatstroke and dehydration, which can be fatal, particularly in conjuction with other storm-related maladies.
Adaptation — being ready for disaster and having plans in place to both reduce fatalities and restore fallen infrastructure — is one of the best ways for communities to prepare. "A few cities — primarily either those that have recently experienced devastating weather-related events or those located along the coasts — are preparing climate change adaptation plans, but still fewer of these include actions the public health community should be taking," Catherine Cooney, a Washington, D.C.-based environmental scientist wrote in Environmental Health Perspectives. Much of this has to do with resources and funding. A lot of it may also be perception-based, Cooney surmised.
"In addition to money woes, a lack of data, and limited research, many local officials are challenged because their constituents don't believe climate change is a real problem," Cooney wrote. As demonstrated by rising death tolls in Asia, this misconception can lead to extensive preventable harm.
The Philippines is head of many of its peers when it comes to adaptation. After a series of devastating 2009 storms, the national government began implementing a mobile-phone based crisis response system for emergency responders, so tha tnews could travel faster even in regions without power or normal cell coverage. The program was funded in part by the World Health Organization, which sent representatives to several key villages for training.
"The principle is to prevent more deaths and diseases. Disasters do happen, and deaths and injuries at the time of the incident, but through this system we would be able to prevent outbreaks that could lead to more fatalities," Soe Nyunt-U, a WHO representative in the Philippines told a reporter for The Guardian. Despite nearly three years in development, however, the SMS action plan is still in its infancy. More widespread use of hte technology could potentially have saved some of the lives that continue to be lost in the region.
'Extension of the technology to citizens themselves might also be helpful for future disasters. At least in the Philippines, SMS response systems are limited to emergency crews. Leveraging the mobile platform to send updates and warnings to residents in potential danger zones might expedite evacuations, and could minimize property loss. Increased connectivity could also allow those affected to self-report injuries and dangerous conditions, which could expedite response time. Such tools would be particularly valuable in very rural areas.
International understanding of climate change and its impact on weather systems is improving. Abilities to track and predict dangerous presure systems are helping keep major public health crises at bay, but more must be done at a local level to prevent harm. Investing in technology and looking for new ways to innovate life-saving solutions is one of the best things local and national governments can do when looking ahead to a world that will surely be marked by an uptick in storms and natural disasters."
Agreed! Here (as an example) is a NASA satellite photo of twin typhoons in the Philippine Sea on August 23. If you look closely, you can see Taiwan and the Philippines outlined on the photo.