Impacts of climate change on health in tribal communities of Odisha, India

Mayarani Praharaj, College of Engineering and Technology, Bhubaneswar

The devastating effects of global warming and climate change world over are now a regular phenomenon. Global warming will result in heatwaves and severe temperatures that will cause heat related diseases like heat cramp, heat exhaustion and heat stroke. It will have implications for food production, water supply, air quality, settlements and human health. Climate change contributes to thousands of deaths and illnesses every year in the Odisha, a state on the east coast of India. A heatwave in 1998 killed around 1500 people in the state, otherwise known for its moderate temperature. The maximum mean daily temperature of the state is gradually increasing, as is the mean daily minimum temperature. Bhubaneswar, the Capital of Odisha saw a record temperature of 46.3 degrees Celsius in June 2005 – 10 degrees above the norm.

In India, about 50 per cent of the tribal population of the country is concentrated in the states of Madhya Pradesh, Chhatisgarh, Jharkhand, Bihar and Odisha. Odisha has been the homeland of 62 tribes and all the districts of Odisha have tribal populations. The reason for the high percentage is attributed to the geographical characteristics, including water sources, mountain ranges and forests. However, climate change threatens indigenous peoples’ access to traditional food and portable water, particularly as a result of desertification and drought – Odisha is one of the most badly affected states.

Tribal people are dependent on a wide variety of native plants for food and medicine. The tribes of Odisha have preserved a rich heritage of knowledge of medicinal plants and their use to cure different diseases. But due to deforestation and desertification, local tribes are failing to collect food for survival and medicinal plants for health care. Tribal women are predominantly vulnerable to the effects of climate change due to their reduced mobility. Scarcity of water poses another impact on women as they need to make greater efforts to collect and store water. What’s more, climate change related food insecurity may result in especially high health risks for women, making them susceptible to illness.

The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) is a framework that contributes to the understanding of the conditions and factors that underpin the survival and development of indigenous peoples and cultures. Examples of traditional and innovative adaptation of indigenous peoples’ practices are already being implemented in response to various climate change risks, including rainwater harvesting, supplementary irrigation, and traditional farming techniques to protect watersheds.  The tribal people often lack basic information about climate change policies. Their active participation in climate change polilcy may help them to respond more adequately to climate change.

Tribal peoples can contribute significantly to the design and implementation of sustainable mitigation and adaptation measures, by offering examples and models of effective adaptation based on valuable traditional knowledge. There is a need to create ecologically sensitive areas to eradicate drought and desertification for a sustainable future. To this aim, watershed development will be useful. There is a need to design storage reservoirs and water harvesting structures so that the water scarcity can be solved.

In the last decade the state of Odisha has taken a number of steps to address climate change through employing mitigation strategies. There is a need to create a platform from which scholars and activists can perform academic debate on climate change and its mitigation. Efficient implementation of policies and a long-term strategy for disaster mitigation and risk reduction are highly needed to reduce health impact of climate change in tribal communities of Odisha.