Don't Consign Poor Countries to Wild Storms and Flooding

Hurricane Maria is still wreaking havoc in Puerto Rico, weeks after making landfall.

Officials announced last week that several people may have died from contaminated water supplies caused by the storm. And with one-third of the Puerto Ricans still without running water, more deaths may follow as people turn to streams.

Climate change has made hurricanes like Maria more intense and destructive -- and has exacerbated the public-health crises that hurricanes can unleash. These crises, fuelled by invisible killers, can be far deadlier than the physical destruction caused by extreme weather.

More than 2 billion people lack access to safe drinking water, according to a new World Health Organization report. That's over one-fourth of the globe's population.

Climate change is making this problem worse. That's because climate change influences the "frequency, intensity . . . and timing of weather and climate extremes," as a United Nations report makes clear. More than half of the major extreme weather events between 2011 and 2015 were linked to human-caused global warming.

These extreme conditions threaten water supplies. Intense precipitation causes flooding that overwhelms sewage systems and contaminates sources of drinking water with sediment, animal waste, and pesticides.

Consider what happened in the Solomon Islands, in the South Pacific, in 2014. Massive rainstorms caused flooding that contaminated water supplies throughout the archipelago. More than 2,100 people developed flu-like symptoms. Nearly 4,000 people suffered from diarrhoea, and ten children died.

People walk across a flooded street in Juana Matos, Puerto Rico, on September 21, 2017 as the country faced dangerous flooding and an island-wide power outage after Hurricane Maria. HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP/Getty

Eileen Natuzzi, a public health researcher who studied the disaster, noted that the illnesses and deaths underscored the "significant health impacts from our changing climate."

Or consider hurricanes like Maria, which have become more frequent and severe because of rising ocean temperatures. Dominica's Prime Minister, Roosevelt Skerrit, made an impassioned plea at the recent UN General Assembly, calling the situation in his country, which was hit hard by Maria, "the frontline in the war against climate change." The Prime Minister lamented, "While the big countries talk the small island nations suffer."

Last October, Hurricane Matthew dumped huge amounts of water onto the Dominican Republic. After rivers overflowed, leptospira bacteria -- which can lead to kidney damage, meningitis, and liver failure -- permeated the water supply. Seventy-four people died.

Rich nations bear some of the blame for these climate-change-fuelled crises. The richest 10 percent of people are responsible for half of global fossil-fuel emissions, which trap heat in the atmosphere and thereby warm the planet. The poorest half of the world's population accounts for a paltry 10 percent of emissions.

Yet richer, higher-emitting countries are also fortunate enough not to bear the full consequences of climate change. A warming climate will have less impact on their levels of economic growth and mortality. By that standard, 11 of the 17 countries with the lowest levels of emissions are "acutely vulnerable" to the negative effects of climate change, according to a recent Scientific Reports study.

In other words, wealthy nations caused the problem but are not doing enough to solve it. In March, for example, the White House announced it would scale back several emissions-cutting measures -- like limits on emissions from coal-fired power plants and a ban on new coal leases on federal land.

Meanwhile, in Europe -- where leaders have chastised the United States for pulling out of the Paris climate agreement -- only three of 27 countries are set to meet their carbon-cutting pledges.

One bright note is the announcement in June by France's Ecological Transition Minister Nicolas Hulot that France, one of the three EU members in compliance with the Paris Agreement, will stop issuing licenses for further oil and gas exploration.

The rest of the developed world must urgently follow France's lead. It is irresponsible and immoral to continue to emit such high levels of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Rich, developed countries need to acknowledge this -- and take urgent action to correct their emitting ways.

Otherwise, future Marias could lead to even greater losses of life.

Hugh Sealy is a professor in the Department of Public Health and Preventive Medicine at St. George's University in Grenada.