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Experts Issue Urgent Call to Act on Triple Threat of Obesity, Malnutrition and Climate Change

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Happy Meal / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

Obesity, malnutrition and climate change must be fought together in order to save lives and the planet, a report released Sunday from the Lancet Commission concluded.


The Lancet Commission brought together 43 experts from 14 countries and follows two Lancet reports on obesity in 2011 and 2015, CNN reported. This most recent report looks at the issue of obesity in a larger context, diagnosing a "global syndemic" or "a synergy of pandemics that co-occur," in this case, obesity, undernutrition and climate change.

"What we're doing now is unsustainable," study author and George Washington University public health expert William Dietz told Reuters. "The only thing we can hope is that a sense of urgency will permeate. We're running out of time."

Obesity and malnutrition are together the leading global cause of early death, and climate change could lead to 529,000 additional adult deaths by 2050 only because of food shortages, CNN reported. Currently, more than two billion adults and children are overweight and suffer from related health issues while two billion also suffer from micronutrient deficiencies and 815 million suffer from chronic undernutrition.

The problems also have linked causes, Reuters noted. The same agriculture and food production systems that churn out nutrient-poor food also lead to increased greenhouse gas emissions. Land use by agriculture and forestry is responsible for a quarter of all emissions, according to Food and Agricultural Organization figures.

Further, corporate lobbying and ineffective policies make the problem worse. In 2016 alone, sugary-drink companies spent $50 million against U.S. government efforts to curb consumption.

"Until now, undernutrition and obesity have been seen as polar opposites of either too few or too many calories," commission co-chair Prof. Boyd Swinburn told The Independent. "In reality, they are both driven by the same unhealthy, inequitable food systems, underpinned by the same political economy that is single-focused on economic growth, and ignores the negative health and equity outcomes. Climate change has the same story of profits and power," he said.

Luckily, the report also offers plenty of solutions. Some, according to CNN, include:

1. Investing in public transportation, which encourages exercise and decreases greenhouse gas emissions.

2. Moving food subsidies from beef, dairy, corn, sugar, rice and wheat and towards healthier, more sustainable foods and farming methods.

3. Passing laws making it clear how much politicians receive from big food companies.

4. Putting clearer labels on food explaining both their nutritional content and environmental impact.

5. Creating a $70 billion global "Food Fund" to cut malnutrition worldwide.

The Lancet Commission also called for a global treaty similar to the Paris agreement on climate change to address the global food system and limit the influence of the food industry, according to Reuters and The Independent.

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Protestors marched outside the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey on Monday, August 26, during the MTV Video and Music Awards to bring attention to the water crisis currently gripping the city. Karla Ann Cote / NurPhoto / Getty Images

By Will Sarni

It is far too easy to view scarcity and poor quality of water as issues solely affecting emerging economies. While the images of women and children fetching water in Africa and a lack of access to water in India are deeply disturbing, this is not the complete picture.

The city of Flint, Michigan, where dangerous levels of pollutants contaminated the municipal water supply, is a case in point — as is, more recently, the city of Newark, New Jersey.

The Past is No Longer a Guide to the Future

We get ever closer to "day zeros" — the point at when municipal water supplies are switched off — and tragedies such as Flint. These are not isolated stories. Instead they are becoming routine, and the public sector and civil society are scrambling to address them. We are seeing "day zeros" in South Africa, India, Australia and elsewhere, and we are now detecting lead contamination in drinking water in cities across the U.S.

"Day zero" is the result of water planning by looking in the rear-view mirror. The past is no longer a guide to the future; water demand has outstripped supplies because we are tied to business-as-usual planning practices and water prices, and this goes hand-in-hand with the inability of the public sector to factor the impacts of climate change into long-term water planning. Lead in drinking water is the result of lead pipe service lines that have not been replaced and in many cases only recently identified by utilities, governments and customers. An estimated 22 million people in the US are potentially using lead water service lines. This aging infrastructure won't repair or replace itself.

One of the most troubling aspects of the global water crisis is that those least able to afford access to water are also the ones who pay a disproportionately high percentage of their income for it. A report by WaterAid revealed that a standard water bill in developed countries is as little as 0.1 percent of the income of someone earning the minimum wage, while in a country like Madagascar a person reliant on a tanker truck for their water supply would spend as much as 45 percent of their daily income on water to get just the recommended daily minimum supply. In Mozambique, families relying on black-market vendors will spend up to 100 times as much on water as those reached by government-subsidized water supplies.

Finally, we need to understand that the discussion of a projected gap between supply and demand is misleading. There is no gap, only poor choices around allocation. The wealthy will have access to water, and the poor will pay more for water of questionable quality. From Flint residents using bottled water and paying high water utility rates, to the poor in South Africa waiting in line for their allocation of water — inequity is everywhere.

Water Inequity Requires Global Action — Now.

These troubling scenarios beg the obvious question: What to do? We do know that ongoing reports on the 'water crisis' are not going to catalyze action to address water scarcity, poor quality, access and affordability. Ensuring the human right to water feels distant at times.

We need to mobilize an ecosystem of stakeholders to be fully engaged in developing and scaling solutions. The public sector, private sector, NGOs, entrepreneurs, investors, academics and civil society must all be engaged in solving water scarcity and quality problems. Each stakeholder brings unique skills, scale and speed of impact (for example, entrepreneurs are fast but lack scale, while conversely the public sector is slow but has scale).

We also urgently need to change how we talk about water. We consistently talk about droughts happening across the globe — but what we are really dealing with is an overallocation of water due to business-as-usual practices and the impacts of climate change.

We need to democratize access to water data and actionable information. Imagine providing anyone with a smartphone the ability to know, on a real-time basis, the quality of their drinking water and actions to secure safe water. Putting this information in the hands of civil society instead or solely relying on centralized regulatory agencies and utilities will change public policies.

Will Sarni is the founder and CEO of Water Foundry.

Note: This post also appears on the World Economic Forum.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Circle of Blue.

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