Climate change effects exacerbate HIV/AIDS risk
Despite progress in slowing HIV/AIDS, environmental disruptions due to climate change threaten to undo the gains in fighting this pandemic.
The relationship between climate change and HIV/AIDS is a bit tricky. HIV does not spread directly through weather-related trends, like the way flooding leads to cholera or the way the West Nile virus infections correlate with higher temperatures.
Rather, the virus spreads mainly through risky behaviours like unprotected sex and intravenous drug use, as well as through mother-to-child transmission and through blood transfusions.
These behaviours can change as populations merge and disband, driven by fighting over increasingly scarce water and arable land.
As civil institutions break down, coercive sex and drug use can also increase, thereby enhancing HIV infection risks.
Severe weather stemming from climate change can also destroy homes and livelihoods, harming people economically.
The poor are less likely to use prophylactics to protect themselves against infection and less able to afford medication to keep infection in check.
According to the UNAIDS, 34.2 million people around the world were infected with HIV in 2011. Last year, the virus led to 1.7 million deaths.
People in southern Africa are facing escalating levels of risk, uncertainty and consequently vulnerability as a result of challenges like HIV/AIDS, poverty, food insecurity, weak governance, climate change and land degradation.
HIV and climate change are perceived as profoundly linked, a perception shared by a range of UN bodies, including UNAIDS and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).
UNEP’s 2009 State of World Population report subtitled – Facing a Changing World: Women Population and Climate places women at the very centre of the attempt to confront climate change and maintains that policies, programmes and interventions are more likely to mitigate its worst effects if they reflect the rights and needs of women.
In the report, UNEP stressed that the success of the global response to HIV/AIDS will rely on tackling not only the encroaching virus itself but also the effects of climate change such as food and water shortages, growth in poverty and an increase in natural disasters.
The environmental agency contends that “equally, strengthening the response to the AIDS epidemic will mean that individuals, communities and societies will have greater social resilience in the face of a range of climate change threats and will be better able to deal with their consequences”.
Women bear the brunt of climate change, partly because in many countries they make up the majority of the agricultural workforce hard-hit in an environmental crisis, and because they often do not have sufficient control of their lives and access to as many opportunities to generate income as men.
As UNFPA Executive Director Thoraya Ahmed Obaid has it that: “Poor women in poor countries are among the hardest hit by climate change, even though they contributed the least to it.”
The report cites numerous examples of extreme climate change from drought in east and southern Africa to floods in Vietnam in Asia.
In each scenario, women are shown struggling to keep their livelihoods and families intact, and, in some cases, fighting for their lives.
According to the UNEP report, empowering women and girls, especially through investments in health and education, helps boost economic development and reduce poverty, thus having a beneficial impact on coping with climate change.
“Women should be part of any agreement on climate change — not as an afterthought or because it’s politically correct, but because it’s the right thing to do.
“Our future as humanity depends on unleashing the full potential of all human beings, and the full capacity of women, to bring about change,” the UNEP report reads.
UNEP argues that ensuring gender inequity is challenged in all its facets is an urgent necessity, not just to improve the lives of individual women but to stave off the worst consequences of environmental crisis.