We have valuable lessons from successfully building social movements to address critical issues, such as the four-decade-long movement to combat HIV. We need a similar collective effort, driven by passionate individuals, to galvanize action in response to climate change.
During a recent visit to Taita Taveta County, I engaged local leaders to discuss the issue of HIV. Surprisingly, the Governor primarily focused on the county’s water crisis and the impact of drought. His remarks shed light on a critical connection. He pointed out a group of women and children waiting outside, who were once prosperous cabbage farmers from the rich Taita hills. Now, they were reliant on handouts and struggling to meet their basic needs. The Governor emphasized that resolving the water problem was integral to addressing the HIV challenge in the county.
This incident reflects a concerning trend among women involved in agriculture. A six-month drought doubles their likelihood of resorting to transactional sex compared to unaffected women, leading to a 48% increase in sexually transmitted infections (STIs).
We are witnessing new concepts of transactional sex for housing during floods, water and food as a result of climate change. The Governor’s concerns about rising HIV seropositivity among older women, aged 35 and above, was validated by our program data. The women used to travel to town to sell their cabbages, but due to the water crisis and climate-related challenges, their livelihoods have been severely impacted. These women’s vulnerability to HIV is driven by the hard choice of returning home empty handed to face hungry kids or going back with food.
Reflecting on the early days of the HIV epidemic, we can draw parallels with the situation in the Makindu area. Mothers were compelled to push their young daughters, as young as 12, into having sex with truck drivers to obtain money for basic necessities during a devastating drought. These incidents exemplify the concept of a syndemic, where multiple epidemics are interconnected and exacerbated by adverse social and structural conditions, resulting in heightened morbidity and mortality.
The intertwined challenges of climate change and epidemics, such as HIV, pose significant risks to human health in the 21st century. There are four pathways through which climate change impacts health outcomes:
- Increased food insecurity: Climate change disrupts agricultural systems, leading to reduced food production and availability, particularly in vulnerable regions. This not only drives risky sexual behaviors and migration but also increases susceptibility to other sexually transmitted infections.
- Prevalence of other infectious diseases: Climate change creates favorable conditions for the spread of vector-borne diseases like malaria and dengue fever.
- Human migration: Climate change-induced events, such as extreme weather conditions, sea-level rise, and environmental degradation, force populations to migrate. Displaced individuals face numerous challenges, including disrupted healthcare access, increased social vulnerability, and exposure to diseases prevalent in new environments.
- Erosion of public health infrastructure: Climate change weakens healthcare systems by damaging infrastructure, disrupting supply chains, and overwhelming health services, including the provision of life-saving care.
The discourse on climate change mirrors that of global pandemics. Never before have we faced such complex challenges that threaten our existence as a species. The devastating effects of climate change, including floods, prolonged droughts, and cyclones, disproportionately impact women and children, who bear the least responsibility for contributing to this crisis.
We have valuable lessons from successfully building social movements to address critical issues, such as the four-decade-long movement to combat HIV. We need a similar collective effort, driven by passionate individuals, to galvanize action in response to climate change. We possess the necessary political will and strength to create urgency and drive lasting change while fostering community resilience to mitigate the negative impacts of climate change.
Let us mobilize multiple sectors and unite, channeling our collective passion and determination to safeguard the health and well-being of present and future generations.