Countries across Africa are particularly vulnerable to the negative health impacts of climate variability and change. Germany has supported the World Health Organization to provide technical assistance to eight African countries to develop Vulnerability and Adaptation Assessments as a first step in health-related adaption planning.
Sound assessments are an essential first step for health adaptation planning
Countries in Africa are among the most vulnerable to the negative impacts of climate variability and change on human health, and among the least prepared to respond effectively to these threats. In 2011, health ministers from 46 African countries adopted a Framework for Public Health Adaptation to Climate Change which calls upon countries in the region to develop and implement health components in their national climate change adaptation plans. This health-related National Adaptation Plan (HNAP) process is a way to ensure that both health issues and health authorities are represented in every country’s efforts to build resilience to climate change.
The World Health Organization (WHO) considers Vulnerability and Adaptation Assessments as an essential first step for health adaptation planning. Such assessments allow countries to identify populations which are most at risk of negative health outcomes, to consider the capacity of public health institutions and programmes to reduce their vulnerability, and to propose measures to enhance resilience in the face of climate variability and change. In 2013 WHO published guidelines to support countries in conducting systematic Vulnerability and Adaptation Assessments, however few countries in the Africa Region have practical experience working with this tool.
Germany and WHO join forces to support assessments in eight countries
In 2014, Germany and WHO agreed to work together to support eight African countries – Benin, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Guinea, Madagascar, Malawi, Mali, and Zambia – to conduct national Vulnerability and Adaptation Assessments. With financing from German Development Cooperation, these countries were able to form teams to conduct assessments; WHO provided technical backstopping throughout the process.
Support for the Vulnerability and Adaptation Assessments aimed to build country-level capacity in climate change and health and to promote national adaptation processes in the participating countries. Another goal of this cooperation was to test the practical applicability of the WHO assessment guidelines in a range of different countries and, on the basis of this experience, to recommend revisions which would improve the resource for users in other countries.
Assessment teams design country-specific studies following WHO guidance
In each of the eight countries, WHO supported the formation of a national assessment team mostly comprised of technical experts from universities and research institutes, along with representatives from the Ministry of Health. Over the next 6 to 12 months, these teams were responsible for designing and implementing assessment processes which addressed the main concerns related to climate change and health in their countries. The WHO headquarters in Geneva and WHO country offices supported the teams throughout the assessment process.
While the exact focus and methods of each study differed based on the country context and on available resources and data, the assessments were conducted in accordance with WHO’s standard guidance, which covers five main steps: 1) clarifying the scope of the assessment; 2) assessing vulnerability to climate variability and change; 3) assessing future impacts of climate variability and change on human health; 4) identifying and prioritising adaptation measures to address current and possible future health risks; and 5) monitoring and managing the health risks o#mce_temp_url#f climate change.
Regional meetings help to tackle technical challenges
The country teams started their assessments at approximately the same time and came together at key points of the process at regional workshops organized by WHO in Arusha, Ndola and Johannesburg (for Anglophone countries) and in Cotonou and Brazzaville (for Francophone countries). The first goal of these workshops was to provide the teams with targeted technical input to tackle challenges they were experiencing while undertaking the assessments. Some countries, for example, struggled to access reliable data about climate and health. In other cases, teams had too much data and faced difficulty in defining the scope of their assessments. During the meetings country teams had the chance to work directly on their risk assessments, with expert input from WHO, and received technical backstopping directly from statistics experts. They also learned about regional resources which could help them deal with gaps in local expertise and gained exposure to new analytical techniques, such as qualitative modelling, to plug data gaps.
Identifying useful lessons for other countries
A second goal of the regional workshops was to allow country teams to share the results of their assessments with one another, to consolidate lessons from the assessment processes, and to generate insights for other countries which may embark upon assessments in the future.
One of the main learnings is that it is important to create multi-disciplinary teams of experts who bring different technical and methodological skills to Vulnerability and Adaptation Assessments. Doing this can help to ensure that a broad range of data sets are drawn upon in country assessments and that alternative research methods are explored in cases where historical data about climate change and health are not available. Another lesson was that national-level assessments can help to shine a light on issues which require deeper exploration. Ideally, assessments should be conducted at district and community levels as well, in order to inform the development of adaptation measures. This is particularly true in large, geographically diverse countries where the health-related risks posed by climate variability and change often vary greatly from one local area to another.
These and other lessons will inform the review and revision of the WHO assessment guidelines so that they provide more practical support and guidance for countries which undertake Vulnerability and Adaptation Assessments in the future.
Countries are better prepared to engage in health-related adaptation planning
The activities undertaken by WHO, with support from German Development Cooperation, have helped to strengthen technical capacity in climate change and health in the eight participating countries and to foster engagement by ministries of health in the Health National Adaptation Process in their countries. All eight countries now have systematic assessments available to inform their adaptation planning, and key personnel who have been centrally involved in the assessment process – including Focal Persons at ministries of health, as well as WHO country officers – are able to bring much deeper experience and understanding to climate change processes in their countries.