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Waterborne Diseases

Impacts on Risk

Climate directly impacts the incidence of waterborne disease through effects on water temperature and precipitation frequency and intensity. These effects are pathogen and pollutant specific, and risks for human disease are markedly affected by local conditions, including regional water and sewage treatment capacities and practices. Domestic water treatment plants may be susceptible to climate change leading to human health risks. For example, droughts may cause problems with increased concentrations of effluent pathogens and overwhelm water treatment plants; aging water treatment plants are particularly at risk. Urbanization of coastal regions may lead to additional nutrient, chemical, and pathogen loading in runoff.

Our understanding of weather and climate impacts on specific pathogens is incomplete. Climate also indirectly impacts waterborne disease through changes in ocean and coastal ecosystems including changes in pH, nutrient and contaminant runoff, salinity, and water security. These indirect impacts are likely to result in degradation of fresh water available for drinking, washing food, cooking, and irrigation, particularly in developing and emerging economies where much of the population still uses untreated surface water from rivers, streams, and other open sources for these needs. Even in countries that treat water, climate-induced changes in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events could lead to damage or flooding of water and sewage treatment facilities, increasing the risk of waterborne diseases. Severe outbreaks of cholera, in particular, have been directly associated with flooding in Africa and India. A rise in sea level, combined with increasingly severe weather events, is likely to make flooding events commonplace worldwide. A 40 cm rise in sea level is expected to increase the average annual numbers of people affected by coastal storm surges from less than 50 million at present to nearly 250 million by 2080. Several secondary impacts are also a concern. Ecosystem degradation from climate change will likely result in pressure on agricultural productivity, crop failure, malnutrition, starvation, increasing population displacement, and resource conflict, all of which are predisposing factors for increased human susceptibility and increased risk of waterborne disease transmission due to surface water contamination with human waste and increased contact with such waters through washing and consumption. Climate change may also affect the distribution and concentrations of chemical contaminants in coastal and ocean waters, for example through release of chemical contaminants previously bound up in polar ice sheets or sediments, through changes in volume and composition of runoff from coastal and watershed development, or through changes in coastal and ocean goods and services. Both naturally occurring and pollution-related ocean health threats will likely be exacerbated by climate change. Other climate-related environmental changes may impact marine food webs as well, such as pesticide runoff, leaching of arsenic, fluoride, and nitrates from fertilizers, and lead contamination of drinking and recreational waters through excess rainfall and flooding.

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