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Climatic Hazards, Health Risk and Response in Developing Countries

DEV Key Contact:  Roger Few
Project Dates: 2004-2007
Project Status: Completed 2007


The aim of this ESRC Research Fellowship programme was to advance a social science of hazards and health, geared to enhancing understanding of how people and institutions in developing countries respond to the health risks posed by extreme climatic events. Weather extremes leading to hazard events such as floods, windstorms and drought affect much of the globe, and in many regions their intensity has been predicted to increase as a result of climate change. When such hazards strike, threats to human health are commonly among the most immediate and urgent concerns, especially in many low-income countries where individual and collective poverty may exacerbate human vulnerability (both exposure and susceptibility) to health impacts through a complex set of epidemiological and behavioural pathways. This research examined how people and institutions perceive, cope with and adapt to the health risks, and the conditions, processes and differential capacities that shape responses to them.

The research programme clarified the social components of vulnerability in this field and the dynamics of health-related response, and developed a framework for analysis of vulnerability and response termed the ‘health impact pathway'. This conceptual work was followed and further informed by four collaborative empirical research projects in Vietnam and Mexico. Within each country, primarily qualitative case studies were carried out in communities of two regions prone to tropical cyclones, flooding and/or drought. Among the diverse findings of the studies were indications that public awareness and understanding of health risks related to climatic hazards were in many cases poorly translated into preventive/protective actions because of factors such as income-poverty, access to resources and socio-cultural norms. Yet, although health risk was seldom prioritized, its importance to households was widely expressed. In some cases it was recognized in an indirect sense, in terms of its effects on or the consequences of wider livelihood impacts.

The research also underlined that constraints on ability to take action were also strongly shaped by perceptions and attitudes, including social and cultural representations of risk. Health promotion in relation to hazards is likely to be of continuing importance as an institutional intervention, but it must take on board all the points made above if it is to be meaningful, accessible and effectively applied. Fostering a preventive as opposed to reactive approach is likely to be a major challenge, but one increasingly important in the context of climate change. It requires an emphasis on building local-level capacities in tandem with strategic actions at higher levels. Given its dependence on support services, the health sector may also need to take a more central role in cross-sectoral coordination for hazard management, disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation.

DEV Researchers:  Roger Few

Partner Organisations:
Centre for Research on Social Development & Poverty Reduction (CRSDPR), University of Social Sciences & Humanities, HCMC, Vietnam.
Viet Nam Red Cross Society (VNRC), Hanoi, Vietnam
El Colegio de Mexico, Mexico City
El Colegio de la Frontera Norte, Matamoros, Mexico
Universidad Autónoma de Yucatán, Mérida, Mexico

Selected Outputs:
Few, R. and Matthies, F. (eds) (2006) ‘Flood Hazards and Health: Responding to Present and Future Risks' Earthscan, London.
Few, R. (2007) ‘Health and climatic hazards: framing social research on vulnerability, response and adaptation', Global Environmental Change, 17, 281-295.
Few, R. and Pham Gia Tran (2010) ‘Climatic hazards, health risk and response in Vietnam: case studies on social dimensions of vulnerability', Global Environmental Change 20, 529-538.
Graizbord, B., Mercado, A. and Few, R. (eds). (2011). Cambio Climatico, Amenazas Naturales y Salud en México [Climate Change, Natural Hazards and Health in Mexico], El Colegio de México, México D.F. (ISBN 978-607-462-278-2)
Cueva-Luna, T.E., Few, R. and Mercado, A. (2011) ‘Afrontando el cambio climático y los riesgos contra la salud: respuestas en la Sierra Tarahumara' [‘Coping with climate change and health risks: responses in the Sierra Tarahumara'], Estudios Demograficos y Urbanos, 26 (3): 671-708.