Working Group II: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability

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9.5.2. Storms and Tropical Cyclones

Impoverished and high-density populations in low-lying and environmentally degraded areas are particularly vulnerable to tropical cyclones (also called hurricanes and typhoons). Many of the most serious impacts of tropical cyclones in the 20th century have occurred in Bangladesh because of the combination of meteorological and topographical conditions, along with the inherent vulnerability of this low-income, poorly resourced population. Tropical cyclones also can cause landslides and flooding. Most deaths are caused by drowning in the storm surge (Alexander, 1993; Noji, 1997). The impacts of cyclones in Japan and other developed countries have been decreasing in recent years because of improved early warning systems. However, the experience of Hurricane Mitch demonstrated the destructive power of an extreme event on a densely populated and poorly resourced region (PAHO, 1999).

9.5.3. Droughts

The health impacts of drought on populations occur primarily via impacts on food production. Famine often occurs when a preexisting situation of malnutrition worsens. The health consequences of drought include diseases resulting from malnutrition (McMichael et al., 1996b). In times of shortage, water is used for cooking rather than hygiene. In particular, this increases the risk of diarrheal diseases (as a result of fecal contamination) and water-washed diseases (e.g., trachoma, scabies). Outbreaks of malaria can occur during droughts as a result of changes in vector breeding sites (Bouma and van der Kaay, 1996). Malnutrition also increases susceptibility to infection.

In addition to adverse environmental conditions, political, environmental, or economic crises can trigger a collapse in food marketing systems. These factors may have a cumulative or synergistic effect. For example, a breakdown in the reserve food supply system resulting from the sale of grain or livestock reserves might be exacerbated by conflict and breakdown in law and order. The major food emergency in Sudan during 1998 illustrates the interrelationship between climatic triggers of famine and conflict. Land mines made portions of major roads in southern Sudan impassable and contributed to poor access for relief supplies. By July 1998, the World Food Programme's air cargo capacity had increased to more than 10,000 t to overcome the transport difficulties. These air cargoes were supplemented by barge convoys and road repair projects (WFP, 1999). Vulnerability to drought and food shortages can be greatly reduced through the use of seasonal forecasts as part of an early warning system (see Section 9.11.1).

Box 9-1. Stratospheric Ozone Depletion and Exposure to Ultraviolet Radiation

Stratospheric ozone destruction is an essentially separate process from greenhouse gas (GHG) accumulation in the lower atmosphere. However, not only are several of the anthropogenic GHGs [e.g., chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and N2O] also ozone-depleting gases but tropospheric warming apparently induces stratospheric cooling, which exacerbates ozone destruction (Shindell et al., 1998; Kirk-Davidoff et al., 1999). Stratospheric ozone shields the Earth's surface from incoming solar ultraviolet radiation (UVR), which has harmful effects on human health. Long-term decreases in summertime ozone over New Zealand have been associated with significant increases in ground-level UVR, particularly in the DNA-damaging waveband (McKenzie et al., 1999). In a warmer world, patterns of personal exposure to solar radiation (e.g., sunbathing in temperate climates) also are likely to change.

Many epidemiological studies have implicated solar radiation as a cause of skin cancer (melanoma and other types) in fair-skinned humans (IARC, 1992; WHO, 1994). The most recent assessment by UNEP (1998) projects significant increases in skin cancer incidence as a result of stratospheric ozone depletion. High-intensity UVR also damages the eye's outer tissue, causing "snowblindness"—the ocular equivalent of sunburn. Chronic exposure to UVR is linked to conditions such as pterygium (WHO, 1994). The role of UV-B in cataract formation is complex. Some cataract subtypes appear to be associated with UVR exposure, whereas others do not. In humans and experimental animals, UVR can cause local and whole-body immunosuppression (UNEP, 1998). Cellular immunity has been shown to be affected by ambient doses of UVR (Garssen et al., 1998). Concern exists that UVR-induced immunosuppression could influence patterns of infectious disease. Nevertheless, no direct evidence exists for such effects in humans, and uncertainties remain about the underlying biological processes.

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