Sultana Afdhal

CEO, World Innovation Summit for Health (WISH)

“Climate Change and Health are inextricably linked”

World Innovation Summit for Health (WISH) participated at COP26 climate summit as an institute that focuses on research related to healthcare policy. “Hospitals” magazine had the privilege to meet Sultana Afdhal, CEO of WISH, to talk about the relation between health and climate change since both are inextricably linked and profoundly affect one another.

As an institute that focuses on research related to healthcare policy, why was WISH at COP26?

Climate change is a public health emergency as it directly affects the social and economic determinants of health. We were at COP26 to stress the importance of tackling climate change in the context of setting and implementing effective healthcare policies.

 This is what our research shows to be the most effective way of addressing the climate crisis and avoiding further health-based global emergencies. 

In a recent joint statement released by over 200 medical journals worldwide, it was recommended that “despite the world’s necessary preoccupation with COVID-19, we cannot wait for the pandemic to pass to rapidly reduce emissions.” We strongly believe that governments must put tangible measures in place to act on climate change right now, and they must work with the healthcare industry in order to do so.

Please highlight WISH’s participation at COP26

We held various different activities at COP26, predominantly around the topic of healthy dry cities and our recent research report, in collaboration with British Medical Journal (BMJ), entitled “Protecting health in dry cities: considerations for policy-makers”. Qatar, as part of the GCC region, is considered to be one of the most arid urban environments in the world. Our report provides recommendations for building and maintaining healthy dry cities, in order to improve the health and wellbeing of those that live in them. 

Therefore, our COP26 highlights included running a session on the findings and recommendations from our report, as well as hosting a photo exhibition, which was essentially a visual representation of our report and which demonstrated the measures which Qatar Foundation has already put in place for the benefit of Qatar’s citizens. The photos were taken at Sidra Hospital, Msheireb Downtown, and various spots within Education City.

Can you elaborate more on why the healthcare sector must be represented when action plans for climate change are discussed?

Health and climate change are inextricably linked and profoundly affect one another. The World Health Organization (WHO) recently stated that climate change is the ‘single biggest health threat facing humanity.’ There are several elements to this interdependence; for example, the healthcare industry is a huge polluter, producing the equivalent to 4.4% of global net emissions including significant amounts of methane, hydrofluorocarbons and anesthetic gases. But at the same time, the health of all living things is directly affected by rising temperatures.

Retractable shades covering Barahat Square in Msheireb Downtown, Doha Shading reduces land surface temperature by intercepting solar radiation, and significantly improves human thermal comfort.

Global warming and the extreme weather conditions that it brings will result in forced mass migrations. In turn, this will lead to an increase in communicable diseases such water- and vector-borne diseases like malaria and dengue fever, and the introduction of novel pathogens, risking further global pandemics. Similarly, Earth’s rising temperatures are causing natural bodies of water to dry up, severely impacting the health of those who rely on them. Water scarcity means food shortages (and drug shortages due to a lack of plant-based medicines) and malnutrition, as well as increased levels of non-communicable diseases such as stress and kidney damage, especially when linked with high temperatures. 

There’s another element to this too; when healthcare systems are stressed, the care models that we work with, which are designed with a specific capacity in mind, put a strain on resources. A heavy disease burden also drives up insurance premiums making healthcare costly for everyone and ultimately, with higher levels of sickness comes lower productivity levels and weaker economies due to lower productivity.

The effects of climate change on the healthcare industry as a whole are undeniable, but the impact of healthcare on our climate is just as damaging. Reviewing and refining our healthcare policies can help us to fight the global climate crisis. 

What steps do you think global governments should take in order to make the health and climate crisis a priority?

In our various research reports on this topic, we make some clear recommendations for governments. One of those is to strengthen healthcare infrastructure and ecosystems by working with scientists from various disciplines such as climatology, ecology, and social sciences on robust policy-oriented research. By evaluating how to adapt current health systems, for example, governments will be able to track the outbreak of new diseases and respond to pandemics in a more effective manner.

Msheireb Downtown, Doha Xeriscape gardening – landscaping that reduces or eliminates the need for irrigation – can substitute for water-intensive green spaces.

For urban environments specifically, they should invest in sustainable solutions to cool and control their microclimates. In dry cities, this could include increased amounts of urban vegetation, irrigated green space and technologies such as biofilters. The action of installing nature-based solutions can contribute to the prevention of non-communicable diseases such as depression, via social connection and physical activity. Governments should also use the role of nurses to impact the trajectory of climate change. Nurses have an unrivaled potential to initiate and mobilize change due to their close contact with communities and the high level of trust they hold, and they should be empowered to take up leadership roles. Then, they will be actively involved in creating the climate-resilient healthcare policies that they will be promoting. 

What commitments have you made towards the cause and how do you intend to fulfill them?

Over the coming months and years, WISH will continue to push to have the relationship between health and climate change recognized as an area that must be urgently focused on. 

To do this, we will continue to produce and promote evidence-based research that demonstrates this relationship, alongside partners who are experts in the field. We will also support and amplify the messages of others that are working in this important area, and will endeavor to lead by example by making sustainability a clear focus of all our future events.

 Can you give us an overview of some of the climate action happening in Qatar?

Qatar National Vision (QNV) 2030 aims to continue Qatar’s transformation into a country that can sustain its own development and provide a high standard of living for its population now, and in years to come. A holistic vision that places environmental preservation for Qatar’s future generations at the forefront is paramount. QNV 2030 balances developmental needs and the protection of Qatar’s natural environment, whether land, sea, or air, through measures including an urban development plan that adopts a sustainable policy and the development of environmental institutions that build public awareness about environmental protection and encourage the use of environmentally sound technologies.

Qatar has also recently announced a new Ministry of Environment and Climate Change and its National Environment and Climate Change Strategy, as part of its move towards its goals on sustainability. The new strategy will deliver three objectives of enhancing the health and vitality of the environment, improving the well-being of Qatar’s population, and ensuring economy’s resilience. To do so, it will focus on five environmental priorities: reducing greenhouse gas and air pollutant emissions, restoring biodiversity abundance, establishing sustainable water management, improving waste management and building a circular economy, and enhancing land use productivity.

Qatar has committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by at least 25 percent by 2030, and has put several measures in place to promote sustainable food production in recent years. Sustainability is also at the heart of preparations for the FIFA World Cup 2022™, which aims to be the first carbon-neutral event in the tournament’s history.

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