Global warming could spread disease, Arab nations warned

Professor tells health conference that climate change is 'a potential disaster' and that Arab nations must identify problems.

AL AIN // Arab nations must take steps to reduce carbon emissions, a professor at the American University of Beirut told delegates at a global health conference yesterday. It is not enough to say emissions produced by Arab countries are small compared with the rest of the world, said Iman Nuwayhid, the dean of health sciences at the university.

"The focus all the time is on adaptation," he said. "The claim is that it is happening somewhere else. It is not our problem. We would wait for rich countries to come and help us." Prof Nuwayhid, speaking at the Global Health and the UAE Asia Middle East Connections conference at UAE University, said focusing on adaptation only "would be a misguided policy". "Although the major problems are elsewhere, there is a lot we can do to improve our situation," he said. "Action on climate change is not a luxury."

Climate change affects not just the environment, but can also impact health care, he said. In the Middle East, Prof Nuwayhid said, climate change can contribute to an increase in the prevalence of some diseases. He urged more research. "We need to think of climate change as a potential disaster," he said. "We need to identify how big of a problem it is for us. We need to do a lot of mapping of hazards and vulnerability."

One disease commonly linked to climate change is malaria. Rising global temperatures, coupled with increased precipitation in some areas, are likely to help the disease spread into new territories. In the Arab region, malaria exists in just four countries: Somalia, Sudan, Yemen and Djibouti. Studies show an average temperature increase of 3°C, a possible outcome for the middle of the century if greenhouse emissions are not substantially reduced, could increase the mosquito population by up to 40 per cent.

The UAE, an arid country, faces different problems. Gail Harrison, a professor at the UCLA School of Public Health, said water scarcity and the potential displacement of people living in low-lying coastal areas are two major issues. "Water is going to become a limiting factor in many countries," she said. She added that as a country that relies on imports for most of its food, the UAE is extremely vulnerable to floods or droughts elsewhere.

"The food situation is going to be a huge one, and [globally] we are already seeing it," she said. Droughts in Australia two years ago hurt wheat production by one of the world's major exporters. "It was not the only reason but certainly part of the increase in grain prices that we saw in 2008," Prof Harrison said. "The fact that the UAE imports most of its food supply means that droughts or floods elsewhere will affect it. Everything is so interconnected.

"Some 65 per cent of the global food supply consists of rice, corn, wheat and potatoes. That makes the whole planet very vulnerable to extreme events." The discussion on climate change took place during the last day of the conference The event brought together 60 leading health scientists to discuss global health threats and to set a research agenda for the region. The conference was held in collaboration with Yale University, the University of California, the American University of Beirut, the University of Hong Kong and the University of Bergen in Norway.