Water and Food Security and the Impacts of Climate Change

On Tuesday, March 1, 2011, the One Health Collaborative Intellectual Exchange Group discussed “Water and Food Security and the Impacts of Climate Change” from the One Health perspective. Presentations on the topic were made by Dr. Jay Levine, Professor of epidemiology and public health at North Carolina State University College of Veterinary Medicine and Adjunct Professor of epidemiology at UNC Chapel Hill, and Ms. Mamie Harris, Africa Programs Director for the UNC Institute of Global Health and Infectious Diseases and Adjunct Assistant Professor in the UNC Public Health Leadership program. These were followed by small-group discussions focused on potential solutions to problems encountered in the field.

Dr. Levine started us off by speaking to access to water, the quantity and quality of that water, and what all of this means to public health. The problem is rooted in the fact that an estimated 13% of the world’s population does not have access to potable water. What’s more, over 41% do not experience adequate sanitation in their day-to-day lives. Dr. Levine described the problems that such a standard of living can create with regards to the poverty cycle. Without the access to potable water and/or with exposure to unsanitary water sources under unhygienic conditions, one’s health becomes jeopardized. Diarrheal diseases, for example, are extremely common in these circumstances but completely preventable with the introduction of potable water. These are just a fraction of the large number of pathogen and chemical-related diseases that are seen in such conditions, and the illnesses that result put their victims out of work, resulting in a lack of income. A lack of income enhances the poverty status of that individual, which increases the likelihood that they will continue to be exposed to the same disease-causing environment. It is a cycle that is perpetuated in many developing nations by the distance of good quality water from those seeking it, as well as the limited quantity of such water. To bring in the One Health perspective, the temperature rises seen in the global climate change have contributed to the severity and duration of droughts in many of these already affected developing regions, a problem that merely exacerbates the scarcity of this potable water. Ultimately, Dr. Levine argued that fresh, sanitary water is becoming a limited and limiting resource that contributes on a foundational level to the overall health of a population.

Ms. Harris then spoke to what is being done to address these problems as well as those involving food security and how well these efforts are being carried out. She did so by presenting two such projects that she has been a part of, one in Ecuador and the other in the Sudan. The Ecuadorian project was aimed at assessing the prevalence of intestinal parasitic infections (IPI’s) in rural Ecuadorian children. Out of the 244 children (0.2-14 yrs) surveyed, over 90% were infected with at least one pathogenic IPI. Additionally, this study found a correlation between giardia and exposure to domesticated animals as well as giardia and stunted growth in children. The information gained from this study initiated an effort among both NGO’s and Ecuador’s Ministry of Health to improve sanitation and hygiene. Ms. Harris’ project in the Sudan, on the other hand, was focused on improving and/or creating supplementary feeding programs as well as health education programs. They also assessed access to water, building latrines and water supply systems when necessary, and access to medical facilities within these communities. These programs were critical to the regions in which they were being carried out, as they experienced many water-associated issues, including diarrheal illnesses. They encountered many issues with the wet and dry seasons in the area as well as with the encouragement of the use of latrines in the communities. Ms. Harris also brought up the incredible interconnectivity of water sanitation and hygiene issues, as humans and animals are affecting their environment, which is in turn affecting both animals and humans. It is an interesting cycle in which all components must be taken into account so that we can prevent an estimated 2.4 million deaths globally.

Following the talks, those attending broke into four groups to discuss case studies involving water sanitation and hygiene and to, then, form a solution to each problem as a group. This lent towards very interesting discussions on topics ranging from epidemiological investigations in developing countries concerning water-related illnesses to the relocation of hippos to build a dam in a national park. It was an interactive and informative night, and we would like to thank Dr. Levine and Ms. Harris for their wonderful presentations!

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