Challenges for health in the face of climate change in Colombia

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Foto: Istock de Daniel Balakov Foto: Istock de Daniel Balakov

Shifting climate patterns are significantly impacting global health, with projections indicating that rising temperatures could force 44 million people into extreme poverty by 2030 and lead to over 21 million deaths by 2050—13 times the toll of the COVID-19 pandemic.  While this crisis has moved to the center of international cooperation, exemplified by the World Health Organization's declaration that climate change is the greatest threat to global health in the 21st century, the urgency was reiterated at this year’s COP28, underscoring the need to act promptly on climate change and health.

The World Bank collaborated with Colombia's Ministry of Health, the Department of National Planning, the Pan American Health Organization, and the National Health Institute to conduct a comprehensive analysis of the potential impacts of climate change on health in Colombia.  The resulting roadmap prioritizes, and costs coordinated actions for adaptation and mitigation.

Four key findings:

  • 1. Effects of temperature on people

Temperature impacts on health in Colombia reveal a stark reality. Between 2010 and 2019, cold temperatures claimed 7,141 lives, while heat caused 2,332 deaths. Projections suggest that the increasing temperature will lead to heat-related mortality surpassing cold-related mortality by 2050.  Economic losses attributed to increased mortality, primarily due to heat, amounted to at least USD 147 million, with the Caribbean region, especially Atlántico, Bolívar, and Cesar departments, bearing the greatest economic burden.

  • 2. Risks to population health and to the health system

Colombians and their health system face exposure and vulnerability to extreme weather events such as floods and landslides. Approximately 25 percent of the population faces flood risks, with nearly 4 percent residing in high-risk landslide areas.  Health facilities are directly exposed, with 20 percent facing disruptive floods and 549 primary care facilities and 20 hospitals directly exposed to landslide risks. The associated costs of exposure to floods and landslides are substantial, totaling USD 170.8 million and USD 656.4 million, respectively. Notably, 5 out of the 10 most vulnerable primary healthcare centers are in the department of Bolivar.

  • 3. Biodiversity and its role for human health and climate change

Colombia's rich biodiversity, while making it the third most biodiverse country globally, is under threat, with 88 percent of its ecosystems at risk. Analyzing the human health impacts of climate change requires understanding the drivers of biodiversity loss and its interaction with human health.  In 2016, environmental factors contributed to 17,549 deaths in Colombia, with 15,681 associated with poor air quality.

  • 4. Assessing costs and identifying interventions

The economic toll of climate change on health in 2020 reached USD 1.8 billion, constituting 0.7% of that year's GDP. Projections suggest costs escalating to USD 7.8 billion in 2050, amounting to 1.6% of the projected GDP. Cost-effective solutions focusing on preparedness and health system resilience are crucial. The development of an early warning system, knowledge management, and the production of guides and action plans are estimated to cost USD 9.8 million over a 10-year period. Adaptation measures for healthcare providers are estimated at USD 46.4 million over the same period.

The road ahead for Colombia

The report outlines three key recommendations for prioritized investments in Colombia:

  1. The expansion of integrated public health surveillance systems, incorporating real-time climate change and public health data, will help develop early warning systems at the sub-national level. 
  2. Prioritizing infrastructure investments to strengthen resilience, including developing contingency and risk communication plans. 
  3. Investing in better planning for climate-related interventions, using vulnerability as a criterion for resource allocation and implementing plans for climate change adaptation in the health sector.

In conclusion, the report emphasizes the imperative to strengthen Colombia's health system sustainably and resiliently against the impacts of climate change. The World Bank's dedication is evident through the creation of Climate and Health Program and the commitment to allocate 45 percent of annual financing to climate-related projects by 2025. Urgency and collective determination are pivotal as we navigate towards creating a healthier and more resilient future for all.


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