Zambia: Cholera outbreak linked to effects of climate change

AFS Correspondent

February 25, 2024

Like any other country in sub-Saharan Africa, Zambia has not been spared by the impact of climate change.

However, critical challenges to its response to climate change include mobilizing financing for adaptation measures, implementing efforts effectively (mainly due to capacity constraints), and establishing a successful governance framework for climate change that enables coordination at national and subnational levels.

An emerging effect of climate change on Zambia is the exacerbation of diseases such as cholera, which has claimed more than 400 lives from 10,000 cases since October 2023.

Poverty and inadequate access to clean water

Cholera is an acute diarrhea infection caused by bacteria typically spread via contaminated food or water. The disease is strongly linked to poverty and inadequate access to clean water. In other cases, cholera emerges after extreme weather events like storms and flooding. In Zambia, the intensity of the outbreak is linked to heavy rains and flooding.

With a fatality rate of approximately four percent compared to the standard one percent, the outbreak in Zambia is a significant cause for concern. As of January, public health authorities had received 1.4 million vaccine doses through World Health Organization mechanisms, but these alone may not be enough to stop the spread of the disease.

“Governments and agencies in the region need immediate funding to swiftly implement activities and projects that would help improve people’s hygiene and access to clean water since these two factors are key in the fight against the spread,” said Machinda Marongwe, Oxfam Southern Africa programs director.

Exposure to  bacteria that cause cholera

Climate Centre’s senior technical adviser for health and climate, Tilly Alcayna, said climate change will likely increase cholera risk, with locally dependent Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WASH) factors playing a critical role in a population’s exposure to the bacteria that cause cholera.

“Rising temperatures are also likely to favor the spread of the bacteria, while extreme weather and rising sea levels may damage infrastructure, leading to contamination of water sources,” she said.

In light of the challenges, Zambia has implemented several interventions to address the effects of climate change. According to Green Economy and Environment Minister Collins Nzovu, Zambia is devising a national climate change adaptation plan to boost the country’s resilience.

Community resilience

The plans will set out Zambia’s medium and long-term climate risks and vulnerabilities and ensure they’re included in the national development planning and budgeting processes.

“Additionally, the national adaptation plan will set out priority adaptation actions, thereby directing investments into the building of the resilience of our people and the economy to the adverse impacts of climate change,” Nzovu stated.

He added that the government has started preparations for a green growth strategy expected to boost its objective of achieving sustainable development aspirations amidst the environmental challenges that hamper the country’s efforts of becoming a middle-income nation by 2030.

The link between climate change and the increase in cholera outbreaks is a complex and pressing issue that demands immediate attention. As temperatures rise and rainfall patterns shift, the conditions for the spread of cholera become more favorable, contributing to the heightened risk of outbreaks.

In Zambia, where changing climatic phenomena have led to floods and natural disasters, cholera outbreaks have surged, underscoring the profound impact of climate change on disease transmission.

Mweetwa Mudenda, a climate change and public health expert from Lusaka Apex Medical University, calls for enhanced efforts toward addressing disease risks posed by the effects of climate change.

He said this was because the implications of climate change extend beyond individual health, encompassing community resilience, social cohesion, and sustainable development. “Understanding climate change’s impact on the health sector is vital for crafting effective public health strategies.”

Public health challenges

The confluence of climate change, socioeconomic vulnerabilities, and inadequate infrastructure necessitates a multi-faceted approach to effectively combat the escalating threat of cholera outbreaks in various parts of the world.

The urgency to address the critical nexus between climate change and the surge in cholera outbreaks cannot be overstated. This is essential in combating cholera and mitigating the impact of climate change on disease spread, underscoring the interconnectedness of environmental and public health challenges in Zambia.


Main photo: Along with a volunteer, Zambia Red Cross Society Acting Secretary General Cosmas Sakala (left) meets with residents as part of ongoing cholera prevention efforts. [Zambia Red Cross Society]