Case Study Series 2 Healthcare and Education
There is growing recognition of the impacts of climate change on medical and personal healthcare services and products, and of the intersections between the health of humans and ecosystems. As India is still critically underresourced in its healthcare provision, climate action is focused at these intersections in the country: sanitation, clean air, plastics and harmful synthetics in health products, landfill emissions and toxicity, and decontaminating the sources of food and water security. These efforts earn the support of local communities by innovating ways to educate the people worst affected by these harms, and with their consent and participation, make gains in decarbonisation and in improving the health of people and local ecologies.
Trend 1: Women’s Health
A student startup in southern India is manufacturing sustainable products for menstrual health. Its sanitary pads are affordable and free of harmful synthetics, and made of fibres of the gongura plant that’s especially effective at sequestering carbon. The biodegradable pads help prevent some of the millions of tonnes of plastic waste being burnt or consumed by animals in landfills. Made without the plastics and plasticisers used in commercial sanitary pads, these pads lower health risks and also preempt some of the world’s plastic related greenhouse emissions estimated at 1.8 billion tonnes a year.
In Pune city in central India, a project that partners with over 150 employers is helping make workplaces better for women, by offering privacy and better health with its sanitary pad vending and disposal machines that help accommodate the stigma around periods without penalising women into being absent from work or having to dispose of their pads in unsanitary ways. Repurposing the used pads, the project connects with local municipal sanitation workers to ensure the pads are recycled using patented technology into cellulose and plastic, sold to vendors for reuse as stationery, planters, packaging materials, reducing greenhouse emissions and saving scarce space in landfills, whose toxic effects on the surrounding air and groundwater are well known.
To improve maternal health, projects are underway in parts of rural India where maternal mortality is high by providing sustainable cooling to households headed by new or expecting mothers, together with remote counselling and psychosocial support. At maternity institutions, they are climate-proofing health facilities and incorporating climate knowledge into easy-to-understand guidelines for women who are pregnant and into infant and maternity diagnostics and care. This because climate warming increases the risk of fetal stress and complications, and of violence by men, and the social and economic insecurity caused by extreme weather and distress migration, in farming communities especially. To mitigate the climate risks, investments are being made in renewable energy and sustainable water resources for health facilities used by new or expecting mothers. In their communities, smartphone-based platforms for people to share their experiences of climate adaptation and crowdsource data to better predict the spread of heat-related and vector-borne disease may help design a better health systems response, and with advocacy of the importance of child and mother health in designing and reporting climate policies, are also helping educate the people in charge.
Trend 2: Repurposing Fossil Fuels
Besides reusing and substituting plastic to lower emissions as described above, climate action in India has also focused on repurposing used cooking oil. The 2 billion litres of cooking oil discarded in the country each year, much of it resold to food vendors, is a consumption hazard and pollutes water bodies and sewage systems harming human and aquatic lives. By creating awareness amongst households, small and large food businesses, restaurants and hotels, work is underway in 40 Indian cities to buy used cooking oil and resell it to manufacturers of biodiesel at incentive prices. Besides mitigating the health risks of consuming rancid oil, the use of cooking oil for biodiesel can also lower carbon and sulphur emissions resulting in slower warming and cleaner air than the widespread use of diesel in India allows. Because it preempts future production, the repurposing of fossil products like plastics and oil remains a focal point of climate action.
Trend 3: Air and Water Decontamination
The health and biodiversity hazards of contaminated water, air and topsoil can pose a food security risk to billions of people. A project underway in the north Indian plains, the wheat and rice belt of south Asia, aims to avert the hazardous burning of crop residue after every harvest by farmers by repurposing it in safer ways. Working together with farmers and young volunteers in areas around the national capital, these projects are winning the trust and informed consent needed to persuade small landholders to rethink the practice and to use the crop residue as soil mulch or resell it instead. By mentoring and providing investment and market support to farmer collectives and equipping them with the right machinery and techniques, they are cleaning the air in the villages and surrounding areas, to help improve attendance at school, permit more outdoor activities, and also increase soil productivity and crop yields. These projects are also preventing a variety of greenhouse emissions, and by improving topsoil capacity to sequester carbon may reduce the need for harmful, expensive fertilisers. Another benefit for farmers and consumers is a drop in irrigation costs and the use of diesel.
Meanwhile, in the urban slums of India, projects in the outskirts of the commercial capital Mumbai are incorporating ecological health with people’s sanitation needs. Here the provision of sewage lines and public toilets is kept low, and together with local government bodies they have increased the extent of sewerage and helped households construct private toilets in their homes. They mobilise local volunteers to educate the residents using street plays, corner meetings and board games. This community education, together with data sharing with local authorities, has rapidly increased the incidence of handwashing, waste segregation at source and waste collection, and safe sanitation practices in the community, leading to improved health in a number of ways. They mitigate the risk of soil and water contamination by untreated human waste and uncollected household waste, and lower the prevalence of associated infections and ecosystem harm. The protection and cleansing of water resources, and the air in the cities, remains a priority in climate action in India.