Health Impact Assessment (HIA)

News of Rio+20 - Health events

Brazil, 19 June 2012

More efficient energy systems in homes and health clinics can protect women’s health

More energy-efficient homes, including better systems for heating, cooking, and indoor ventilation, can significantly reduce respiratory disease risks, including chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, asthmas, pneumonia, and tuberculosis, Dr Margaret Chan, Director General of the World Health Organization, told delegates attending the Rio+20 Conference in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Dr Margaret Chan, WHO Director General, speaking at a Rio+20 side event on Energy, Health and Women's Empowerment

Many of the world's poorest women and children spend hours of their day in poorly ventilated rooms breathing smoke from inefficient biomass and coal cookstoves and kerosene lamps, Chan said, drawing the links between reliable energy access, women and health. Meanwhile, the chronic lack of electricity in many health facilities worldwide can be a matter of life and death.

"Without a reliable supply of electricity, vaccines, blood, and medicines cannot be safely stored, equipment cannot be properly sterilized, equipment may be damaged or disabled due to power surges, and operating rooms have to shut down at twilight," Chan said.

However, sustainable energy technologies can help reduce these health risks, Chan added, saying, "Innovation can help save the day. Solar energy can provide cheap, reliable [electrical] power for both households and clinics. Newer, cleaner cooking stoves are beginning to catch on." Chan was speaking at the Rio+20 side event “Energy enabling the MDGs: Health and women’s empowerment”, on June 19.

Exposure to indoor air pollution, including smoke from rudimentary biomass and coal cook stoves, kills nearly two million people annually, mostly women and children. Changing this situation is one of several co-benefits to health of climate change mitigation, according to a recent WHO report on healthy housing innovations, which is part of a series on "Health in the green economy".

Cleaner energy policies could halve the number of childhood deaths from pneumonia and substantially reduce the burden of more than one million people who die each year from chronic lung disease caused by indoor air pollution, released 19 June, on the eve of the Rio+20 conference.

Decentralized, affordable energy access for homes, communities and health clinics could also reduce health impacts such as: complications in child birth; no access to emergency obstetric care; and violence against women and girls due to a lack of street lighting, noted Lakshmi Puri, Deputy Executive Director, UN Women, speaking at same the energy and health side event.

For example, small mobile solar applications can provide power to clinics for life-saving treatment, said Dr Laura Stachel, Co-Founder and Executive Director of WE CARE Solar. Stachel displayed powerful images from rural areas in Africa illustrating the difference the "first 100 watts" of illumination can make to midwives assisting mothers in labour.

"We are bringing the first 100 watts to the last mile rural health facilities, supporting women and the health providers who care for them," Stachel said.

"Without reliable electricity, doctors conduct caesarean sections by flashlight, midwives struggle with kerosene lanterns and candles to conduct deliveries, critically ill women are turned away from hospitals when the power is down. We need to leverage investments in sustainable energy for health care, and not leave health workers in the dark for 12 hours a day."

Leslie Cordes, of the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, highlighted how new energy technologies, including cleaner fuels and improved biomass cook stoves could improve health. There is a need, however, for better data on health and gender impacts of these stoves and the ability to better measure and monitor improvements.

Nearly 3 billion of the world's poor rely upon rudimentary biomass and coal cooking stoves. Dr Kandeh Yumkella, Director General, UN Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), also emphasized that women bear the brunt of lack of energy access, not only in terms of air pollution but also in terms of the risks and time involved in fuel gathering.

Philippe Meunier, Director of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, underscored the importance of mobilizing public opinion in putting women and health issues at the centre of the sustainability platform, together with the cross-cutting issue of access to reliable energy sources.

Rio+20 draft declaration links sustainable development to fight against NCDs

Meanwhile, the fact that the current draft Rio+20 draft declaration "The Future We Want" clearly establishes the linkages between sustainable development and the fight against non-communicable diseases (NCDs) was welcomed by other leading WHO participants at Rio as well as by members of the Non-Communicable Disease Alliance.

Dr M. Neira at Rio+20

“The Rio + 20 Declaration will help define the health agenda for the next 10 years," said Dr Maria Neira, Director of WHO's Department of Public Health and Environment at a 19 June side event "Health within the green economy: Multisectoral frameworks for NCDs control and sustainable development".

Cardiovascular and respiratory diseases and cancer in particular, have a strong environmental health component, said Neira and other participants at the side event, organized by the American Cancer Society in collaboration with the Non-Communicable Disease Alliance.

Neira noted that reductions in air, water and chemical pollution can prevent up to one quarter of the overall global burden of disease. NCDs currently kill 36 million people per year, according to a recent WHO report.

All in all, the Rio+20 draft has advanced a long way in terms of getting health issues onto the sustainable development agenda, Chan also noted, in response to a question at the energy side event from a young group of medical students from the International Federation of Medical Students Associations (IFMSA).

"I want to address my young colleagues. I want to say keep pushing for health, we've only just begun," Chan said.

Norway and WHO sign cooperation agreement for health-related MDGs

Also at the Rio+20 Conference, WHO and the Government of Norway approved a cooperation agreement to support the achievement of the health-related Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in developing countries. The agreement was signed on June 19 by Dr Margaret Chan, WHO Director General, and the Norwegian Minister for International Development, Mr Heikki Holmås. The ceremony was held in the Riocentro, the conference center where heads of state met 20-22 June to discuss the world’s joint action for sustainable development.

“This agreement shows that Norway has a long term commitment with the MDGs,” said Chan. She noted that Norway is currently the fourth largest provider of voluntary funds to WHO, and ranks among the countries with highest contribution to development assistance as a percent of GDP. Norway will make available an amount of 238.5 million Norwegian Kroner for WHO’s MDG programmes in 2012. In 2013, pending parliamentary appropriation, an additional 223.5 million Kroner will be disbursed.

Mr Holmås highlighted the pertinence of signing the agreement during the Rio+20 conference and reaffirmed Norway’s commitment with sustainable development in spite of the global financial crisis. “It is not fair that countries withdraw from development assistance as a solution for a crisis with an unrelated origin,” he said. The signing ceremony was attended by officials from the Norwegian government and WHO, including its representative in Brazil, Dr Joaquin Molina.