Saint Lucian Youth Highlight the Impact of Climate on Health in their Communities

Bridgetown, Barbados, 27 February 2023 (PAHO/WHO) – Climate change has increased levels of uncertainty about our future and by extension our health. As the impacts of climate change intensify, this will perhaps be felt more by youth, than any other population group.

Every year in the Americas, an estimated one million premature deaths are attributable to avoidable environmental risks.  Air pollution, contaminated water, inadequate sanitation, soaring temperatures and severe storms, are some of the most pressing environmental public health threats for the region.  By effect, more young people are becoming sensitised about the challenges and risks presented by the climate crisis.  Through active engagement, youth are equipped with the ability and passion for cultivating ideas that can lead to sustainable development solutions.

Dr Kim Newton-James, a year one graduate of the European Union-funded, University of the West Indies (UWI) Climate Change and Health Fellowship programme recently exposed a group of youth from her homeland of Saint Lucia to the impacts of climate change on the health of their community members and the environment. 

A picture of Dr Kim Newton-James
First year University of the West Indies, Fellow, Dr Kim Newton-James.

The volcanic island of Saint Lucia is more mountainous than most Caribbean islands.  Tourism is vital to its economy and attractions include a "drive-in" volcano where one can drive within a few hundred feet of the gurgling, steaming mass; the Sulphur Springs, in Soufrière; the majestic twin peaks, "The Pitons" and its rain forests.  Like many Caribbean countries, these low-lying, small-island developing states are particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change.

“This project expands on the coverage of previous initiatives in Saint Lucia to improve understanding of the link between climate change events and health and adaptation measures.” Dr. Newton-James explained. The initiative also supports recommendations from Saint Lucia’s National Adaptation Plan Stocktaking, Climate Risk and Vulnerability Assessment Report (2018), to increase investment in climate change communication and awareness.  “There is a need for Saint Lucian youth to be more active at the community level and to be able to recognize the impacts of climate change on health,” she asserted. 

The Saint Lucia Health & Climate Change Profile (2020) highlighted the highest priorities of climate change risks in Saint Lucia, as the direct health effects of extreme weather events and indirect health effects – water security/safety and water-borne diseases, food security/safety, malnutrition, food-borne diseases, vector-borne diseases, and air pollution.

Dr Newton-James explained that the participatory, community approach focused on youth-based education, awareness, and action was not only timely but also important in building resilience to climate change at the community level.  The project commenced with a multistakeholder buy-in workshop where the youth and other stakeholders were introduced to the project and invited to contribute. This was followed by a youth knowledge-sharing session and an activity that involved taking photos in the community. These photos were uploaded to a registry and were used as the basis for informed discussion about possible solutions and avenues for action.

After participating in the workshop, Dr. Newton-James sent out the young participants, from various communities – from Gros Islet in the North to Vieux to the South - of this Eastern Caribbean Island nation.  Dr Newton-James was very impressed with what they found. 

“I keep saying this.  We underestimate our youth.  We don’t give them enough credit.  If we give them the tools that they need to be the sort of change agents, especially in a crisis like what we have right now, climate change, they will come up with the most innovative solutions,” Dr Newton-James remarked.

The photos captured by the youth highlighted the challenges related to climate change and health and opportunities for building resilience to climate change at the community level. According to Dr Newton-James, the photos highlighted that the impact of climate change was evident and varied among Saint Lucian communities. They identified bushfires, an influx of Sargassum seaweed, soil erosion, land slippage/landslides, the destruction of the shoreline, increased vector breeding grounds and the evaporation and siltation of rivers. 

One young person showed some of the issues found in her environment.
One young person showed some of the issues found in her environment.

The young persons presented opportunities for reform of natural degradation identified through photographs. These included the use of more sustainable agricultural practices and land management, the removal of abandoned houses and debris, incentives for innovative use of sargassum, the engagement of women in climate change and health issues and greater community and private sector action in the adoption of communities, the creation of green spaces/community gardens and community sensitization on the impact of climate on their health.

Youth participant, Gabrielle Menal, recalled the evidence of climate change impacts on the Roseau community that she documented.  “You could see a lot of algae cover in the rivers and the level of water decreasing and a lot of pollution as well,” she recalled. “I have a picture of the Roseau River which showed nutrification and sand mining - that one stood out for me the most,” she described.  Miss Menal also recognized that the health impacts of climate change affected some groups more than others.

“I realized that it is a lot more serious than a lot of people realize.  Especially, for people who directly work outdoors and pregnant women - I didn’t really know that it could affect pregnant women and as a young woman myself, I found that to be important,” she asserted.

Youth participant, Gabrielle Menal
Youth participant, Gabrielle Menal

The project culminated in a multi-sector stakeholder symposium with representation from relevant stakeholders to discuss the recommendations and findings from the youth activities.  The data collected during the youth session and the multi-stakeholder discussions was compiled using a narrative format and presented in a final report. 

“My hope is that these young participants will take this practical exercise to the next level by increasing awareness and engaging other young people to build resilience in their communities,” Dr Newton-James noted.

The University of the West Indies (UWI) Climate Change and Health Fellowship is one aspect of the European Union (EU)/CARIFORUM Climate Change and Health project.  The five-year €7 million project is coordinated by the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) Caribbean subregional office.  The goal is to over the 5-year project to Strengthen Climate Resilient Health Systems in the Caribbean by improving climate and health systems, as well as human capacities, through collaborations with five main sub-regional partners (including the UWI). 

Under the output developing ‘Strong, effective Climate Change leadership, the Climate Change and Health Leaders fellows programme has as its primary focus, to build and ensure that relevant skills and expertise are available within the region and to ensure resilience to the impacts of climate change on health.

In each cohort, six fellows take part in the one-year study to promote leadership in climate change and health.  It will prepare them to return to their country with the skills and knowledge to support the process of implementing the change, empower communities and support youth engagement. One of the requirements of the Fellowship Training Program is the development and implementation of a national project, which addresses a climate change and health issue in their country.  The third cohort will begin in June 2023.