Prevention is better than cure

Speaking at COP28, Kenyan activist Elizabeth Wathuti explains why the climate crisis is also a health crisis.

We are in a climate crisis, which is also a health crisis. The urgency of our response is key to a safe and livable future for us and generations to come. The need to act cannot be overstated: prevention is better than cure. 

Ample research has shown the devastating impacts of climate change on our health, including the rise of infectious diseases, disrupted food systems and pollution of the very air we breathe and the very water we drink.

No country is immune from the rising threats of climate change, and there is a disproportionate impact on the frontline and vulnerable communities like mine. 

However, let me paint a vivid picture of our transformative potential through the story of a young woman, whom I met in Kibera, an informal settlement in Nairobi, Kenya.

She told me how indoor air pollution from using oil for lights had negatively impacted the health of her children. Burning oil for lights emit smoke and she said that the smoke from indoor oil lamps had been burning her children's eyes and making them cough.

That was until she was able to apply for a low-cost solar installation on loan. By getting access to a low-cost clean energy solution this was woman was helped to clean up her children's air.

Due to the climate induced extreme weather, my country, Kenya, has also seen a significant surge in cases of cholera due to lack of clean water and malnutrition caused by food insecurity. Pregnant women and children are hardest hit. Hungry mothers have told me how they couldn't produce enough milk to feed their babies due to extreme hunger, an emergency that was caused by climate induced droughts across the Horn of Africa.

This is why it is crucial to put health at the core of the climate justice dialogue and be inspired by the immense transformative potential of innovative and cross-sectional collaboration in affected regions.

“It is crucial to put health at the core of the climate justice dialogue.”

Elizabeth Wathuti, Green Climate Fund Youth Champion

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Solar panels are helping to power homes and industry across Kenya. Photo: Shutterstock.

We cannot be at COP28 and ignore the biggest cause of this crisis: our dangerous addiction to Fossil fuels. In 2019, over one million people died from air pollution in Africa alone. And according to the World Health Organisation (WHO) air pollution leads to seven million premature deaths per year, largely fossil fuel intensified.

Poor air quality also affects health infrastructure. A recently-released analysis shows that hospitals worldwide face widespread shutdowns during weather disasters unless fossil fuels are phased out.

The message from the wider health community is clear and the scientific evidence is undeniable. Committing and investing in a just and equitable face of fossil fuels that also ensures access to clean energy for all is the key to securing human health.

However, to catalyse this transformative transition, there is need for financial support at all levels, from local communities to international institutions. And with that funding must come an understanding that local communities and grassroots initiatives are capable of leading the change that we want to see and are already addressing climate change at that local level.

Transitioning to clean energy and investing in renewables isn't merely a solution. It's a lifeline that can bridge disparities and provide equitable opportunities for all of the people, including the most affected.

By simultaneously addressing health and climate change, governments can unlock a wealth of benefits for their citizens. And these benefits range from clean water to improved life expectancy and robust economic growth.

Recognising that these challenges are interconnected is crucial, and our solutions must reflect this reality and we must therefore not continue to treat these issues in silos but address them as one. As they have both two sides of the same coin.

At COP, let us not be content with mere pledges, but let us be driven by unwavering commitment to action. Because action is what is going to help us address the challenges that are affecting humanity today. And action is what is going to help us ensure humanity's survival regardless of the challenges that we face.

Each one of us possesses the power to effect change, to shape a brighter future, and to shape a healthier future. Let us act with open hearts, unwavering resolve, and a shared vision for a world where we prioritise the health of our planet and the wellbeing of our people, its inhabitants.