by Shiban Ganju
We had assembled outside Lucknow to train ‘master trainers’. They had travelled from their villages, one to two hundred miles away, for a six day education in health care. Women outnumbered men in this group of thirty five. We believed, on their return, they would become health trainers in their native villages.
Today was the fifth day. We had an open interactive session, where the trainees got to express their thoughts freely. They had already bonded with each other; camaraderie flourished from giggles and side chatter. Inhibitions had eased.
Puja, a small woman sitting near the window, stood and said she had just composed a poem, which she wanted to recite. The group shouted a noise of approval. She began. She had captured the essence of maternal and child health in rhyme. Trainees murmured appreciation; she was their resident poet.
The girl in yellow Sari, sitting on the opposite side, rose. She introduced herself, “My name is Mehrunissa. I want to express my gratitude to all of you and the organizers to let me participate here. I joined the women’s group one year ago. I started attending their meetings. Till that time, I had never participated in any group. For the first time in my life I started stepping out and this is the first time in my life that I have stayed out of my house on my own for seven days.”
“Did your husband or mother in law object?” asked the moderator.
“In the beginning my mother in law asked some questions but now she is used to it. My husband has supported me.”
The group cheered – men a little louder than the women – for this empowerment in action!
The attitude of these people had changed since the program started about two years ago. An internal transformation was happening. Personal responsibility for health was seeping into their awareness , which was an assurance for good health but not a guarantee. They could still lose the war, just when they were about to win the battle. They were vulnerable to external forces of socio-politics of man and nature. Unknown to them and beyond their control, people of the world, who had already “progressed” were collectively already destroying their future. The bellowing industrial carbon dioxide had already made the planet into a hot green house and punched a hole in the protective ozone layer. Heat could not escape and ultraviolet rays rushed in, unhindered.
I stepped out of the air conditioned training building during the lunch break. Hot gale of dust slapped my face; my eye lids squinted. Blistering hot wind puffed up my loose white shirt and scalded my torso. My skin felt every degree of the 49 Celsius (120 degrees F) and oozed beads of sweat in mild protest. The climate change may have already started.
The crop sustaining monsoon had not arrived yet and prediction was dire for this year. Poor farmers treaded on cracked, excoriated, water starved scabrous land. With no crops, bearable hunger would become starvation; disease and death would flourish. Scientists had predicted, with rising temperature of the Arabian ocean, the southwest monsoon will diminish and the life sustaining water downpour from the skies may disappear from India in 150 years.
The heat of it all made me dream of cool Alaska, where I was supposed to go on a planned trip a day later. I took off from scorching Lucknow the next day and after 48 hours of flights, airports transits and a boat ride, I was amidst the icy glaciers. In a short time, I had traversed oceans and continents over more than half the globe – from flat land to undulating hills, from prickly heat to cool breeze, from parched farms to a foggy ocean. From Lucknow to Alaska – it was surreal. And here I was: confronting a ‘sky scrapper’ of ice on the northern point of Glacier Bay. The majestic, thousands year old, mountain of snow reflected sun light in blue streaks from its crevices as a trickle of melting ice played a metallic sound in the background. Yes, the glacier was melting, and at an alarming rate. Here too, summer had taken its toll; mounds of ice had fallen off and floated next to our boat. The carbon dioxide of ‘progress’ was melting Alaska, as it was heating Lucknow.
I googled. “Alaska’s climate has warmed about 4°F since the 1950’s and 7°F in the interior during winter. The state experienced a 30% average increase in precipitation between 1968 and 1990. The growing season has lengthened by two weeks. Sea ice has retreated by 14% since 1978 and thinned by 60% since the 1960s with widespread effects on marine ecosystems, coastal climate, and human settlements. Permafrost melting has caused erosion, landslides and damaged infrastructure in central and southern Alaska. Recent warming has been accompanied by “unprecedented increases in forest disturbances, including insect attacks. A sustained infestation of spruce bark beetles, which in the past have been limited by cold, has caused widespread tree deaths over 2.3 million acres on the Kenai Peninsula since 1992, the largest loss to insects ever recorded in North America” (US Global Change Research Program, National Assessment, 2001). (http://www.alaskaclimatechange.org/)
“The impacts of climate warming in Alaska are already occurring. These impacts include coastal erosion, increased storm effects, sea ice retreat and permafrost melt. The villages of Shishmaref, Kivalina, and Newtok have already begun relocation plans. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has identified over 160 additional rural communities threatened by erosion. Click here to see photographs of some of the Alaska climate change issues.” (http://www.climatechange.alaska.gov/)
Besides unforeseen complex ecological effects, climate change would impact human health. While some of this impact may be beneficial – like hampering the viability of disease-transmitting mosquitoes – most of the effect would be harmful. WHO estimated that in 2000, climate change caused 2.4 percent of diarrhea in the world and 6 percent malaria in the middle income countries. As temperate regions become warmer, seasonality of diseases like dengue, malaria and food poisoning may change. For example, natives in Alaska, who have traditionally used underground permafrost for food storage, will be vulnerable to food poisoning as permafrost warms up.
Climate affects our health in diverse ways as the following diagram shows:
The world temperature has increased by 0.6 degrees in the last century. Lately it has been increasing at a faster pace. Approximately two-thirds of the increase has occurred since 1975 and this trend will escalate in the coming century. We are damaging – probably irreversibly – the protective ‘wrap’ under which we have thrived since the last ice age. We are attacking earth’s ecological system with multiple human weapons: emissions, pollutants, overgrazing, animal slaughter and misuse of water. Rising sea levels, population displacement, food shortage, economic disruption and ensuing civil conflict will add sickness burden and cause new public health problems.
Boating through the thawing icy cliffs of Alaska I had forgotten Lucknow for a moment. And then my phone rang: Puja, our resident poet, had been rushed to a hospital with a suspected heat stroke. Mountains and men are vulnerable when the nature roars in heat. Separated by thousands of miles, Lucknow and Alaska live under the same polluted sky.
The world may not be connected in harmony but we are in it together for foreboding disaster.