Climate-Environment-Health: Zambia Kafue Ecosystem

PI John Poulsen, Nicholas School of the Environment

Charles Nunn, Trinity College, Evolutionary Anthropology

Erica Field, Trinity College, Economics

Alex Pfaff, Sanford School of Policy

Heather Huntington, Trinity College, Political Science

Karin Reuter-Rice, School of Nursing

Climate change, environmental degradation, and health are deeply intertwined: climate change affects the environment in ways that can compromise the determinants of health – clean air, safe drinking water, sufficient food, and secure shelter. Climate impacts on the environment increase illness and death from extreme weather events, disruption of food systems, and increases in zoonoses and vector-borne diseases. Thus, the combination of climate change and environmental degradation can undermine the social determinants for good health, such as livelihoods, equality, and access to health care. 

In sub-Saharan Africa, rural people are particularly at risk of experiencing the ill effects of climate change because of their high dependence on natural resources for income and for day-to-day survival. The economy of Zambia, for example, depends on climate sensitive sectors such as agriculture, resource exploitation, and tourism. This country of 17 million people suffers from frequent droughts, floods, extreme temperatures, and dry spells – and their frequency increases as the climate changes. Droughts in the 2018-19 farming season left 2.3 million people in need of emergency food assistance. Moreover, rainfall is projected to decline and temperatures to rise in the coming decades, reducing crop yields, and potentially increasing other environmentally harmful activities, such as deforestation for coal production, to meet their livelihood needs. 

A critical assumption of the link between human well-being and conservation is that they have the potential to positively impact each other. Although there is a growing body of empirical work that indicates improved ecosystem health benefits human health, important knowledge gaps remain, and there is little to no empirical evidence to support claims that improvements in basic health will reduce or improve environmental health. Our study will rigorously assess the direction and magnitude of these linkages.

We will build a transdisciplinary team, strengthening existing relationships that some of our team members already have with government, international and local NGOs, and communities in Zambia’s Greater Kafue Ecosystem. This ecosystem encompasses the Kafue National Park and nine locally managed Game Management Areas and is home to 200,000 people dependent on smallholder farming, fishing, charcoal production, mining, tourism, and timber.  Our overarching goal is to determine how human well-being and conservation outcomes impact each other and the conditions that contribute to the realization of positive outcomes for both. To do so, we will (1) generate rigorous evidence to understand the mechanistic relationship between climate change, environmental health, and human health; and (2) design and evaluate solutions to strengthen the adaptive capacity of rural communities to respond to climate change by building sustainable livelihoods and green local economies.