2 Jul, 2015
United Nations, (UN News Centre) 1 July 2015 – Two United Nations agencies have unveiled a series of new guidelines aimed at addressing the health risks posed by the increasing number and intensity of climate change-related heatwaves affecting the planet, as warm weather alerts spread across Europe following soaring temperatures that killed hundreds of people in India and Pakistan last month.
The set of guidelines, jointly produced by the UN World Health Organization (WHO) and World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and entitled Heatwaves and Health: Guidance on Warning-System Development, will seek to alert decision-makers, health services and the general public through the systematic development of so-called heatwave early warning systems which, in turn, will hope to trigger timely action in reducing the effects of hot-weather extremes on health.
“Heatwaves are a dangerous natural hazard, and one that requires increased attention,” said Maxx Dilley, Director of the WMO’s Climate Prediction and Adaptation Branch, and Maria Neira, Director of the WHO’s Department of Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health, in their foreword to the publication. “They lack the spectacular and sudden violence of other hazards, such as tropical cyclones or flash floods, but the consequences can be severe.”
According to the two agencies, heatwaves are becoming more frequent and intense on a global scale, largely due to the acceleration of climate change. In recent weeks, they have already caused hundreds of deaths across India and Pakistan. Meanwhile, the heatwaves in the northern hemisphere’s summer of 2003 were responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of people across the European continent.
The publication’s launch also follows the WMO’s recent revelation that 14 of the 15 hottest years recorded have all been in the 21st century, confirming a dangerous trend in global warming amid devastating weather patterns and increasing temperatures.
The guidance provided by the WHO and WMO takes into consideration a number of factors, including who is most at risk from heat, outlines approaches to assessing heat stress and surveys heat-intervention strategies, all the while building upon the “lessons learned” from the implementation of the first-ever Heat-Health Warning System, rolled out in the United States city of Philadelphia in 1995.
In addition, the authors noted, the WMO-WHO joint publication is expected “to provide effective climate services and save lives in vulnerable communities around the world.”
“Growing concerns over climate change have brought to the fore three important aspects: adaptation, disaster-risk reduction and the need for climate information and services to support these,” Mr. Dilley and Dr. Neira concluded. “Heat-Health Warning Systems bring together these three facets and exemplify an effective demonstration of climate-risk management in practice.”
Heat or hot weather that lasts for several days, often referred to as “a heatwave” can have a significant impact on society, including a rise in mortality and morbidity. Heatwaves also place an increased strain on infrastructure (power, water and transport). Clothes and food retailing, tourism and ecosystem services can also be affected, such that there may be socioeconomic “winners and losers” from heatwave events. In some instances, heatwaves may even trigger social disturbances at a number of levels.
The impacts of heatwaves can be great and sometimes catastrophic, as manifested by the large number of heat-related deaths recorded across Europe in July and August 2003, and the Russian Federation in July and August 2010. While the effects of heat may be exacerbated in cities, due to the urban heat island (UHI) effect, the livelihoods and social well- being of non-urban communities can also be severely disrupted during and after periods of unusually hot weather.
This Guidance has been developed jointly by WMO and WHO to outline for practitioners in both NMHSs and National Health Services (NHSs) the issues surrounding the general heat–health problem and present how an understanding of the biometeorology, epidemiology, public-health and risk-communication aspects of heat as a hazard can be used to inform the development of an HHWS as part of a wider HHAP. The Guidance places emphasis on the practical aspects of HHWSs at a generic level and is not intended to be prescriptive.
The Guidance has been produced to have global applicability. It has drawn on expert opinion and the acquired experience of a wide range of people and institutions involved in the development of warning systems and heat plans.
In particular, it has been enriched by information contained in the US Environment Protection Agency’s Excessive heat events guidebook and reports of the projects funded by the European Commission under its fifth (1998–2002) and sixth (2002–2006) framework programmes: Assessment and prevention of acute health effects and weather conditions in europe (PHEWE), Climate change and adaptation strategies for human health (cCASHh) and Improving public health responses to extreme weather/heat-waves (EuroHeat).