Impact of climate change on freshwater management

A  potential driver for emerging infectious diseases

22 September 2020

As part of an ongoing debate on correlations which can be drawn from the nett-effects of COVID-19, and that which climate change is slowly but surely enforcing on humankind and the environment, Cobus Meiring of the Garden Route Environmental Forum (GREF), spoke to Dr Jeff Opperman from WWF in Washington, on how the mismanagement of fresh water, under certain conditions, can expose vulnerable communities to potentially infectious diseases.

South Africa is set for exponential population growth over the next few decades and that, coupled with ongoing COVID-19 impacts, as well as a fair number of seriously uncertain environmental impacts, including the availability of fresh water, paint a grim picture.

Meiring asked Dr Opperman about his research and conclusions on freshwater management and the health impact thereof on vulnerable communities.

Says Dr Opperman, “The COVID-19 pandemic has spurred governments and funders to identify measures that can reduce risk of future emerging infectious diseases (EID) affecting human health and well-being. Among these, the conservation of natural ecosystems, including more sustainable management of forests, agriculture, and wildlife, have a strong and credible potential to reduce the risk of future EID events.”

“While COVID-19 is an emerging disease that recently spilt over from animals to humans (an ‘emerging infectious zoonotic disease’) endemic (long-established) zoonotic diseases, such as malaria and dengue fever impose a greater overall health burden on people globally, particularly in the Global South. Further, infectious diseases that are not zoonotic, including waterborne diseases, are among the leading causes of mortality worldwide. Beyond disease, a range of toxins and pollutants in water also impose significant global health burdens.”

“Thus, our policies and interventions for responding to the current pandemic, and the development of strategies that link conservation and human health, should not be limited to only COVID-19 or zoonotic diseases, but should address Emerging Infectious Diseases (EID) and the broader nexus of ecosystems, agriculture and human health.”

According to Dr Opperman, a range of issues related to freshwater resources and management is relevant to the vulnerability of populations to EID events, including:

  • The vulnerability of a population to an EID event will increase with an increasing disease burden of vector-borne diseases (e.g., malaria) and waterborne diseases (e.g., diarrheal diseases). Degradation of water quality can also increase vulnerability, such as negative health outcomes associated with nutrient pollution and toxic metals.
  • Water scarcity could increase vulnerability by diminishing the effectiveness or availability of medical care, reducing food availability, dehydration and even simply the lack of access to clean water for handwashing, which is a basic precaution against the spread of EIDs including COVID-19.
  • Degradation of freshwater systems could impact food security, and increase vulnerability, by diminishing fishing or agriculture that depends on river flows, nutrients or sediment.

In the South African context, freshwater management is also burdened by factors such as sewage effluent, decaying supply infrastructure, pollution and invasive alien plant management in rivers and catchments.

Says Dr Opperman: “The way we manage our freshwater resources has implications for sustainable fisheries, agriculture and livelihoods to reduce vulnerability to disease. Protecting our wetlands can reduce the risks of avian influenza, and protecting and sustainably managing catchments can provide cleaner water for urban areas and reduce the incidence of diarrheal disease.”

“Sustainable water management and allocation can help to avoid droughts that can exacerbate some risks and health burden associated with scarcity. In addition, sustainable ecosystem management can reduce flood risk, which is a major direct threat to health and also intertwined with disease.”

Please click on the document title below for the full-length version of Dr Jeff Opperman’s article “Freshwater management, emerging infectious diseases, and human health”.

Article_Dr Jeff Opperman_Freshwater management, emerging infectious diseases and human health _22 September 2020

*Dr Jeff Opperman is a global freshwater lead scientist at the WWF. He was previously lead scientist for The Nature Conservancy’s Saving Great Rivers Programme.

The Garden Route Environmental Forum (GREF) is a public platform for environmental management entities in the Southern Cape, and a regional think tank on climate change mitigation and adaptation.

River pollution in the Garden Route. Pollution in the upper catchment of the Great Brak River feeding directly into the estuary. (Photo: Cobus Meiring)










A community in the Garden Route area. Globally, environmental managers and health care specialists agree that a lack of freshwater management has the potential to do more harm to vulnerable sub-Saharan communities than the novel COVID-19 pandemic, and the resultant extreme and often irreversible socio-economic demise it exerts. (Photo: Cobus Meiring)