Climate change and its impact on health on small island developing states

November 2017

Most small islands already have high burdens of climate-sensitive diseases such as vector-, food- and water-borne diseases like malaria, dengue and diarrhoeal disease.

The effects of climate change (including increased average temperatures, more frequent and severe extreme weather events and rising sea levels) will exacerbate this disease burden with an expected increase in illnesses and deaths, as well as threatening access to safe food supplies, clean water and sanitation.

A child walking through sea in South, Tarawa, Kiribati
South Tarawa, Kiribati
WHO/Y. Shimizu

Rising sea levels are threatening access to land in coastal areas, particularly low-lying islands. Land used for agriculture will no longer be usable, as salt water contaminates soil and freshwater supplies. People are forced to migrate inland, causing health issues including increased infectious diseases and mental health problems. In Kiribati, predicted rises in sea level and extreme weather events threaten the existence of this low-lying country made up of 33 coral atolls and reef islands.

A man with mask, goggles and spraying device around a house in the Dominican Republic
Spraying to control mosquitoes in the Dominican Republic

Rising temperatures and other effects of climate change create breeding grounds for disease-carrying insects. Mosquitoes, which spread diseases including malaria, dengue and Zika, are particularly sensitive to changes in temperature and humidity. Under the 2015 Paris Agreement, countries have agreed to take action to limit global warming to 2 °C.

A child with his mother, sitting on hospital bed among other patients in Solomon Islands
Paediatric Unit,National Referral Hospital, Solomon Islands
WHO/Y. Shimizu

Children under 5 years of age are at most risk from climate-sensitive diseases like malaria and diarrhoeal diseases. Already-stretched health services will need additional resources to cope with increased demand.

A man in a damaged hospital room in Antigua and Barbuda
WHO staff member assesses damage from Hurricane Irma at Hanna Thomas Hospital, Antigua and Barbuda

Hospitals and health centres need to be reinforced to withstand powerful storms, heat waves and other extreme weather events so that they can continue to provide urgent health services before, during and after disasters.

A child having oral cholera vaccine dropped into his mouth by a health worker, in Figuers, Haiti
Child receives an oral vaccination against cholera in Haiti, following Hurricane Mathew in 2016

Early-warning disease surveillance systems that can effectively detect disease outbreaks are essential in facilitating rapid response, as are preventive vaccination campaigns and prepositioning medical supplies.

A man with an umbrella climbs on a bridge over a polluted river in the Philippines
Water pollution in Marikina River in the Philippines
WHO/Y. Shimizu

Floods and droughts both affect access to safe drinking-water. These can lead to increased illnesses and deaths from waterborne diseases such as diarrhoeal disease.

Flooded streets in Havana, Cuba
Flooding from Hurricane Irma, Cuba

Floods contaminate freshwater supplies, heighten the risk of water-borne diseases, and create breeding grounds for disease-carrying insects such as mosquitoes. They also cause drownings and physical injuries, damage homes and disrupt the supply of medical and health services.

Manila skyline with polluted air
Air pollution in Manila, the Philippines
WHO/Y. Shimizu

Air pollution kills more than 6.5 million people worldwide every year. Countries that take action to mitigate climate change, such as reducing pollution from burning fossil fuels, will see an immediate impact on health, as well as helping to reduce the global warming that is threatening small island states.

Five young boys on the beach, in Port Vila, Vanuatu
Children play on the beach in Port Vila, Vanuatu
WHO/Y. Shimizu

A child born today can hope to live into the next century. By taking action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and increase health resilience – we can ensure that these children can look forward to a healthy future.