Accessibility links

Indigenous People Vulnerable to Climate Change

  • Joe DeCapua

Researchers say indigenous people are among the most vulnerable to climate change. They’re studying how extreme weather events can trigger more disease outbreaks.

Scientists say extreme weather events have accompanied a rise in global temperatures. Droughts, heavy rains and floods have put indigenous people around the world at risk.

“I would say that indigenous people are particularly vulnerable to climate change impacts because of their close relationship with the local environment and ecosystems and also their dependence on those local ecosystems for their livelihood, as well as a lot of complex and interrelated social issues and inequities and inequalities,” said Sherilee Harper, who’s a Ph.D candidate in aboriginal people’s health at the University of Guelph near Toronto, Canada. She’s been studying the effects of climate change on the Batwa people in southwest Uganda.

“So for instance, after a period of heavy rainfall or flooding there’s often increased in bacteria and pathogens in the water due to runoff and things like that. That can increase a risk of exposure to waterborne disease. Now, climate change scenarios are predicting we’re going to see more of these periods of heavy rainfall more frequently, longer duration and more intense instances. So we’re expecting that’ll increase the prevalence and risk of exposure to waterborne disease,” she said.

One of those diseases is diarrhea, which health officials estimate kills about one million young children every year.

“The World Health Organization is predicting that most of the climate-related health burden is going to be due to diarrheal disease and malnutrition. And both of those are water issues. So that’s why we started studying the topic,” said Harper.

Need to know more

The Uganda project is part of what’s called the Indigenous Health Adaptation to Climate Change Project. It studies the effects of rising temperatures in Uganda, Canada and Peru.

Harper said, “Health of indigenous people is generally an under-researched area. So often times, the quality of health data that we have on indigenous populations is not of as high a quality and it’s not as long-term data sets compared to non-indigenous communities in the same country.”

The Batwa people helped in the preliminary research. They were given digital cameras and taught how to use them. The Batwa then took pictures of how their environment has been affected by climate change and discussed their findings with researchers. They reported increased periods of heavy rainfall and warmer temperatures throughout the year.

One of the ideas being considered to help the Batwa is to set up a community radio station broadcasting in the local language. Topics would include health, weather conditions, etc. The Batwa have been described as “conservation refugees.” The Ugandan government relocated them from their forest homeland to make a national park to protect silverback gorillas.

The Indigenous Health Adaptation to Climate Change Project is in its initial data-gathering stage. That will last several years. Phase two will consist of using that data to form action plans to protect indigenous people and their water supplies.