On the 16th of April 2023, Ayetoro, a coastal community located in southwest Nigeria and known as the happy place, had yet another incursion on its land by the Atlantic Ocean, affecting over 500 houses. A quick Google search using the keywords: ‘Sea, Incursion, Ayetoro, and Ondo State’ yielded 3,740 results in 0.28 seconds, with top results showing articles from major news outlets like TVC News, Premium Times, Nigerian Tribune, Punch, BusinessDay, Leadership, and Vanguard.
Climate change-focused civil society organisations have also advocated for government intervention in the plight of Ayetoro and other coastal communities, leveraging environmental occurrences like this to increase awareness and demand accountability on the implementation of mitigation and adaptation measures in line with global targets set by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC). Until recently, public and policymaker discourse and action on the impact of climate change in Nigeria has predominantly focused on the environmental, agricultural, and economic impacts. This is likely driven by prevailing interests, current funding structures and capacity and the available body of evidence provided by researchers.
The biggest threat to humanity
Climate change is the single biggest health threat to humanity, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), affecting well-being through both direct and indirect pathways. Direct health impacts arise from extreme weather events such as floods and heat waves, as well as disrupted food supply systems leading to food insecurity. Indirect health consequences include malnutrition, the proliferation of water and vector-borne diseases, resulting in a higher incidence of illnesses and diseases such as diarrhoea and malaria. Low- and Middle- Income Countries (LMICs) like Nigeria, where health systems are poorly developed, and low-lying coastal areas are worst hit.
The health impacts of climate change are not sufficiently highlighted by policymakers, civil society, and the media, both globally and in Nigeria. Therefore, there needs to be more voices discussing the issue. A quick review of World Environment Day themes from 2005 to 2023 reveals that no health-related theme has ever been chosen. However, higher priority in addressing the impact of climate change on health is urgently required, given existing evidence of the health co-benefits associated with climate action. In Nigeria, documentation and communication of the evidence of these health impacts and co-benefits for change in adaptation and mitigation policies and practices is quite poor.
Effort must be made to improve the dissemination of information on these crucial issues, ensuring that policymakers and the public are well-informed about the intersection of climate change and health. By doing so, Nigeria can strengthen its commitment to addressing the health implications of climate change and take proactive measures to protect the well-being of its population.
Nigeria’s Climate Change Act
Nigeria is a signatory to the Paris Treaty and a regular participant at the annual Conference of the Parties (CoP), where global decisions around climate adaptation and mitigation actions are discussed and commitments made. In 2021, President Muhammadu Buhari signed the Climate Change Act, which builds on existing evidence to set a net zero target for 2050 to 2070. The Act establishes the National Council on Climate Change, which is multisectoral in composition. While this is significant progress as Nigeria is one of the few African countries to have a climate change law, the signed Act is heavy on mitigation measures but rather scant on adaptation-specific policies and measures and on the health co-benefits. There is no representation of the health sector on this council, and there continues to be a siloed response to climate change highlighting the need to build capacity in the Ministry of Health. Inadequate data means a lack of understanding by policymakers and the public on the climate impacts on health. A lack of understanding implies an insufficient push to act, including making the necessary investments in research to generate local, context-specific evidence to drive policy. It is a vicious cycle that must be broken by intentionally investing in research that would enable an assessment of the vulnerability to climate change.
World environment day 2023
On June 5th, 2023, World Environment Day was celebrated with a particular focus on solutions to plastic pollution. The global production of plastic exceeds 400 million tonnes annually, with less than 10% of it being recycled. Nigeria generates 2.5 million tonnes of plastic waste annually, and policies and regulations around the use of plastics are poorly formed and enforced. Plastics have been proven to be harmful to the planet, and the ingestion of microplastics has also been found to pose health risks. These facts highlight the urgent need to strengthen the body of evidence regarding the health implications of climate change and other environmental determinants. What, for example, are the direct and indirect impacts of climate change on the people of Ayetoro community, the happy place? Will generating and effectively communicating this evidence accelerate action by policy and decision makers?
Nigeria has been fraught with significant climate hazards in recent times, including floods, drought and desertification, leading to displacement of populations, internal migration and insecurity, all of which have direct and indirect impacts on health. To ensure a climate resilient health system, stakeholders need to urgently generate evidence on the health impacts of climate change for effective advocacy and ask on the strength of the evidence for:
- Policymaker engagement to increase understanding of the health impacts and co-benefits of climate change.
- Research studies to make the climate impacts on health more clearly understood, with public engagement campaigns to educate the public on the link between environmental factors like climate change and health to drive action.
- Institution of effective policies — climate change adaptation and mitigation actions are multisectoral, and the omission of the health sector in the constitution of the national council on climate change as stipulated by the Climate Change Act should be rectified.
- Multisectoral collaboration between relevant ministries, departments and agencies across the health, environment, agricultural, economic sectors, to ensure synergy, efficiency and effectiveness.
- Funding to collect data on climate impact on health to design a pathway to climate resilience.