In the Philippines, more frequent extreme weather events, rising temperatures and heavy rainfall are increasing the risk of infectious disease. A project in northern Luzon has taught health workers and volunteers about the effects of climate change on health and has strengthened cooperation between government and Red Cross health structures.
Located within the Pacific Ring of Fire and a typhoon belt, the Philippines is highly vulnerable to a range of natural disasters, from volcanic eruptions and earthquakes to extreme rains, landslides, floods and tidal waves. Disease outbreaks are common in the aftermath of these natural catastrophes as people are displaced from their homes, lose access to safe drinking water, and are unable to reach health facilities. Climate change will intensify these challenges. According to the World Health Organization, the Philippines is likely to experience stronger and more frequent extreme weather events, rising sea levels, and warmer temperatures. These, in turn, may lead to a rise in the incidence of infectious diseases, such as Dengue fever and leptospirosis.
A new project links together disaster risk reduction, climate change and health
Well aware of the interlocking threats posed by natural disasters and climate change, the Government of the Philippines has endorsed a comprehensive approach to disaster prevention and risk reduction. Since 2010, for example, government authorities at all levels – right down to the barangay (ward), the smallest administrative unit – have been mandated to integrate both disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation into their regular planning processes. Following Typhoon Haiyan, which caused massive devastation in late 2013, the government made it a requirement that every barangay develop a disaster risk reduction plan.
Despite its relevance, health has not played a prominent role in disaster preparedness and climate change adaptation efforts in the Philippines. Between December 2014 and December 2016, German Development Cooperation supported a project which aimed to change this, by introducing a focus on health into existing disaster preparedness efforts and a focus on climate change into the provision of community health services.
A collaboration between the German and Philippine Red Cross‘Climate Resilient and Healthy Barangays’ was implemented by the Philippine Red Cross, in cooperation with the German Red Cross, in four provinces of northern Luzon: Benguet, Ifugao, Ilocos Sur and La Union. This area of the Philippines is frequently affected by natural disasters, but has relatively low capacity to prepare for, respond to and recover from them. Germany’s Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development has been supporting the German and Philippine Red Cross to implement a Community Based Disaster Risk Reduction programme in 10 municipalities and 50 barangays in these provinces. These existing activities provided a logical entry point for the new project on climate change and health.
Bringing awareness about climate change and health into the provision of community health servicesOne aim of the project was to strengthen the provision of climate-sensitive health services in the four provinces. The Philippine Department of Health has a Climate Change Unit and has trained many health officials at the regional level. However, thus far, very little work has been done at the provincial and local level to educate health care providers, such as midwives and barangay health workers – or Red Cross volunteers, who conduct many health-related activities – about the linkages between climate change and health. Neither have they been trained to identify outbreaks of climate-sensitive diseases, despite the fact that they regularly visit households in their communities and provide many basic health services.
Working in close cooperation with the Department of Health, the project team brought together more than two dozen health officials and health workers from the participating provinces to develop the key messages for new informational materials (e.g. posters and flipcharts) about climate change and climate-sensitive diseases, such as Dengue fever, diarrheal diseases, respiratory illnesses, leptospirosis and measles. Officially approved by the Department of Health, the posters now hang in municipal and barangay health centres across the target provinces.
In addition, using a specially developed curriculum on climate change and health, nearly three dozen Red Cross staff and health officials from the participating provinces were prepared as trainers. They, in turn, trained more than 550 Red Cross volunteers, midwives and barangay health workers how to facilitate sessions about climate change and health with community members. During September and October 2016, these trained facilitators engaged nearly 9000 people – more than 80 percent of them women – in educational sessions to raise their awareness of the effects of climate change on health.
A strong partnership against climate-related health risks
One of the main results of the project has been a greatly improved working relationship and more systematic cooperation between the public health system and the Philippine Red Cross. From the participatory key messages workshop to the training-of-trainers approach which engaged both health workers and Red Cross volunteers, the project has helped to foster trust and a collaborative approach between two institutions which now have joined forces to improve the delivery of climate-sensitive health services at the local level.