20 June 2018

Combating Drought and Desertification to Preserve Human Health

Posted by Joshua Speiser

Iris An, MPIA, MPH candidate, The George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health and John Balbus, MD, MPH, Senior Advisor for Public Health Director, NIEHS-WHO Collaborating Centre for Environmental Health Sciences

On June 17, the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) will observe its World Day to Combat Drought and Desertification. The devastating impacts of drought and desertification on people are highlighted this year, as the UNCCD has made the linkages between desertification and human migration its annual theme. As noted by the UN[i], one billion of the world’s poorest, most vulnerable people in over one hundred countries are at risk, and 250 million are currently directly affected. But the human impacts extend beyond the tragic uprooting and displacement of people. Drought and desertification have a wide array of health impacts, ranging from infectious diseases to stress, depression and suicide. Human migration is also associated with a wide range of secondary health impacts, including exposure to violence, sexually transmitted diseases, water and vector-borne diseases, and tuberculosis. Thus, this day presents an excellent opportunity for the newest section of the American Geophysical Union, the GEOHealth section, to join with other parts of AGU to raise awareness of the serious health and environmental implications of drought and desertification.

Droughts increase the risk of dying, particularly for vulnerable groups such as older adults.[ii] Droughts can also lead to more cases of Valley Fever, or coccidioidomycosis, an infectious disease caused by a type of fungus that grows in arid soils.[iii] In California and Arizona, an elevation of cases ocurrs when summers are warmer and soil is drier.[iv] Droughts have also been associated with harm to mental health, particularly in farming communities. As a farmer’s livelihood is directly related to water supplies, significant economic stress occurs when droughts or desertification reduce crop yields or harm the health of livestock. Farmers in Australia and India reported have higher suicide rates during drought periods.[v]

Environmental migration intensifies existing stress on social and healthcare resources in the host country.[vi] Migrants, whether they are in designated settlements or dispersed throughout the host countries, are targets to violence perpetrated by other migrants in the settlements or by discontented locals. Displacement also creates high-risk situations, such as limited access to contraceptives, severe poverty, and social instability, that accelerate the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.[vii] A study on the 2016 drought in Mozambique showed high exposure to STDs among young women as they migrated in search for food.[viii] Water-borne diseases such as diarrhea and cholera are major concerns of displaced migrants.[ix] Migrants living in impoverished settlements or overcrowded communities are also exposed to infectious disease hosts such as rats.[x] Furthermore, containers used by migrants to gather water for daily use become a breeding site for mosquitoes, leading to observed increases in West Nile virus, malaria and dengue in migrant populations.[xi] As drought-induced migration leads to poor access to health care and crowded conditions, the risk of tuberculosis is significantly increased. [xii]

The UN Convention to Combat Desertification emphasizes the importance of combating land degradation in the context of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), especially Goal 15, which  addresses this issue directly. The effects of land degradation on human migration and human health demonstrates how intertwined health and sustainable development really are. To achieve a thriving, equitable, and healthy society, attention must be paid not just to SDG 15 and land degradation, but nearly all of the other SDG’s. The health of people is inextricably linked to the health of the planet on which we live. This is especially clear when we consider the health threats of drought and desertification. While we have only started to study many of the health implications of drought and desertification, public health and land management agencies working together can still apply our existing knowledge to reduce the geohealth threats associated with these slow-motion climate-related disasters.


[i] http://www.un.org/en/events/desertificationday/

[ii] Berman, J. D., K. Ebisu, R. D. Peng, F. Dominici, and M. L. Bell, 2017: Drought and the risk of hospital admissions and mortality in older adults in western USA from 2000 to 2013: a retrospective study. The Lancet Planetary Health, 1, e17-e25.

[iii] Gorris, M. E., Cat, L. A., Zender, C. S.,Treseder, K. K., & Randerson, J. T. (2018).Coccidioidomycosis dynamics in relation to climate in the southwestern United States.GeoHealth,2,6. https://doi.org/10.1002/2017GH000095

[iv] Gorris, M. E., Cat, L. A., Zender, C. S.,Treseder, K. K., & Randerson, J. T. (2018).Coccidioidomycosis dynamics in relation to climate in the southwestern United States.GeoHealth,2,19. https://doi.org/10.1002/2017GH000095

[v]Hanigan, I., Butler, C., Kokic, P., & Hutchinson, M. (2012). Suicide and drought in New South Wales, Australia, 1970–2007. PNAS. doi:https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1112965109

Parida, Y., Dash, D., Bhardwaj, P., & Chowdhury, J. (2018). Effects of Drought and Flood on Farmer Suicides in Indian States: An Empirical Analysis. Download PDF, 168.

[vi] Jarvis, L., Montgomery, H., Morisetti, N., & Gilmore, I. (2011). Climate Change, Illl Health, and Conflict. BMJ, 342. doi:https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.d1819

[vii] McMichael, C., Barnett, J., & McMichael, A. (2012). An Ill Wind? Climate Change, Migration, and Health. Environmental Health Perspectives, 120, 649.

[viii] Evidence Brief, UNFPA http://esaro.unfpa.org/en/publications/women-and-drought-southern-mozambique-more-responsibilities-less-power-and-increased

[ix] Zarocostas, J. (2011). Famine and Disease Threaten Millions in Drought Hit Horn of Africa. BMJ. doi:https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.d4696

Emont, J., Ko, A., Homasi-Paelate, A., Ituaso-Conway, N., & Nilles, E. (2017). Epidemiological Investigation of a Diarrhea Outbreak in the South Pacific Island Nation of Tuvalu during a Severe La Nina-Associated Drought Emergency in 2011. The American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, 580-1.

[x] Moreno, A. (2006). Climate Change and Human Health in Latin American: Drivers, Effects, and Policies. Regional Environmental Change, 160.

[xi] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2012, July 27). Health Implications of Drought: Diseases Transmitted by Insects and Animals. Retrieved 6 11, 2018, from Drought and Health: https://www.cdc.gov/nceh/drought/animals.htm

Stanke, C., Kerac, M., Prudhomme, C., & Murray, V. (2013). Health Effects of Drought: a Systematic Review of the Evidence. PLOS Currents Disasters. doi:https://doi.org/10.1371/currents.dis.7a2cee9e980f91ad7697b570bcc4b004

[xii] McMichael, A., McMichael, C., Berry, H., & Bowen, K. (2010). Climate-Related Displacement: Health Risks and Responses. In J. McAdam, Climate Change and Displacement: Multidisciplinary Perspectives, p. 203.

[1] http://www.un.org/en/events/desertificationday/

[1] Berman, J. D., K. Ebisu, R. D. Peng, F. Dominici, and M. L. Bell, 2017: Drought and the risk of hospital admissions and mortality in older adults in western USA from 2000 to 2013: a retrospective study. The Lancet Planetary Health, 1, e17-e25.

[1] Gorris, M. E., Cat, L. A., Zender, C. S.,Treseder, K. K., & Randerson, J. T. (2018).Coccidioidomycosis dynamics in relation to climate in the southwestern United States.GeoHealth,2,6. https://doi.org/10.1002/2017GH000095

[1] Gorris, M. E., Cat, L. A., Zender, C. S.,Treseder, K. K., & Randerson, J. T. (2018).Coccidioidomycosis dynamics in relation to climate in the southwestern United States.GeoHealth,2,19. https://doi.org/10.1002/2017GH000095

[1]Hanigan, I., Butler, C., Kokic, P., & Hutchinson, M. (2012). Suicide and drought in New South Wales, Australia, 1970–2007. PNAS. doi:https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1112965109

Parida, Y., Dash, D., Bhardwaj, P., & Chowdhury, J. (2018). Effects of Drought and Flood on Farmer Suicides in Indian States: An Empirical Analysis. Download PDF, 168.

[1] Jarvis, L., Montgomery, H., Morisetti, N., & Gilmore, I. (2011). Climate Change, Illl Health, and Conflict. BMJ, 342. doi:https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.d1819

[1] McMichael, C., Barnett, J., & McMichael, A. (2012). An Ill Wind? Climate Change, Migration, and Health. Environmental Health Perspectives, 120, 649.

[1] Evidence Brief, UNFPA http://esaro.unfpa.org/en/publications/women-and-drought-southern-mozambique-more-responsibilities-less-power-and-increased

[1] Zarocostas, J. (2011). Famine and Disease Threaten Millions in Drought Hit Horn of Africa. BMJ. doi:https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.d4696

Emont, J., Ko, A., Homasi-Paelate, A., Ituaso-Conway, N., & Nilles, E. (2017). Epidemiological Investigation of a Diarrhea Outbreak in the South Pacific Island Nation of Tuvalu during a Severe La Nina-Associated Drought Emergency in 2011. The American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, 580-1.

[1] Moreno, A. (2006). Climate Change and Human Health in Latin American: Drivers, Effects, and Policies. Regional Environmental Change, 160.

[1] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2012, July 27). Health Implications of Drought: Diseases Transmitted by Insects and Animals. Retrieved 6 11, 2018, from Drought and Health: https://www.cdc.gov/nceh/drought/animals.htm

Stanke, C., Kerac, M., Prudhomme, C., & Murray, V. (2013). Health Effects of Drought: a Systematic Review of the Evidence. PLOS Currents Disasters. doi:https://doi.org/10.1371/currents.dis.7a2cee9e980f91ad7697b570bcc4b004

[1] McMichael, A., McMichael, C., Berry, H., & Bowen, K. (2010). Climate-Related Displacement: Health Risks and Responses. In J. McAdam, Climate Change and Displacement: Multidisciplinary Perspectives, p. 203.