Extreme heat linked to rising deaths in tropical forest communities

Heat-related deaths among rural communities living in tropical countries such as Indonesia are increasing as deforestation and climate change cause temperatures to rise.

volunteer firefighter uses a tree branch to extinguish fires in Pulang Pisau
A volunteer firefighter uses a tree branch to extinguish fires in Pulang Pisau regency near Palangka Raya, Central Kalimantan province, Indonesia. Image: REUTERS/Willy Kurniawan

Life near tropical forests is changing fast with more deaths and less time to work outdoors due to extreme heat, researchers said on Thursday, and the fallout from deforestation and climate change is only set to worsen.

The Nature Conservancy analysed how rising temperatures are increasing heat-related deaths and unsafe working conditions for communities in lower-latitude nations such as Indonesia.

Published in the journal Lancet Planetary Health, the study analysed satellite deforestation and temperature data, and population figures for the forest-rich Berau regency on the Indonesian part of Borneo island in 2002 and 2018.

It found that daily temperatures rose by almost 1 degrees Celsius (33.8F) in the period, contributing to 8 per cent more deaths and almost 20 extra minutes per day where conditions were too hot for people to work safely outdoors.

In 2018, people were unable to work safely outside due to heat for 30-60 minutes across much of Berau.

Mortality is around 596 people per 100,000 in Berau, which has a population of about 232,528, meaning that an 8 per cent jump in the mortality rate would be an extra 110 people each year in that district alone, the researchers said.

“There is a limit to what human beings can tolerate in terms of heat and humidity (and) a lot of tropical forest nations are close to that threshold,” said Nicholas Wolff, climate change scientist at the US-based conservation group.

“So it doesn’t take much to push us over,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.

Cutting down forests has major implications for global goals to curb warming, as trees absorb about a third of the planet-heating carbon emissions produced worldwide, but release the carbon they store when they rot or are burned.

The ongoing COP26 climate talks in Glasgow may be the last chance to cap global warming at the 1.5C-2C degrees Celsius upper limit set out in the 2015 Paris Agreement.

Forests also provide food and income, help clean air and water, support human health and wildlife, regulate rainfall and offer flood protection.

Last year, an area of tropical forest the size of the Netherlands was lost, according to monitoring service Global Forest Watch.

Palm oil

Berau in East Kalimantan — the focus of the study — is rich in rainforests and home to indigenous people and farming communities, with palm oil driving much of its deforestation, Wolff said.

Palm oil is the world’s most widely used edible oil and found in everything from margarine to soap. Its production has led to deforestation, fires and worker exploitation, environmental groups say.

The study found that deaths linked to climate change-induced heat could rise by an additional 20 per cent above 2018 levels if global warming goes above a 2C temperature rise.

In this scenario, communities will increasingly have to work in unsafe conditions to support their families, Wolff said.

Global average surface temperatures are already about 1.1C above pre-industrial times.

Global leaders pledged to halt and reverse deforestation by the end of the decade at the COP26 last week, but environmentalists called for more funding and tough regulation of businesses and financiers linked to forest destruction.

Yuta Masuda of The Nature Conservancy and co-author of the report said he hoped that study would “prompt greater awareness and support for those front-line rural communities in latitudes where temperatures and humidity levels are already so close to human heat-stress thresholds”.

This story was published with permission from Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women’s rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate.

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