by Kathleen A. Alexander, Alexandra K. Heaney, Jeffrey Shaman
The impacts of climate change on surface water, waterborne disease, and human health remain a growing area of concern, particularly in Africa, where diarrheal disease is one of the most important health threats to children under 5 years of age. Little is known about the role of surface water and annual flood dynamics (flood pulse) on waterborne disease and human health nor about the expected impact of climate change on surface-water-dependent populations.
Methods and findings
Using the Chobe River in northern Botswana, a flood pulse river—floodplain system, we applied multimodel inference approaches assessing the influence of river height, water quality (bimonthly counts of Escherichia coli and total suspended solids [TSS], 2011–2017), and meteorological variability on weekly diarrheal case reports among children under 5 presenting to health facilities (n = 10 health facilities, January 2007–June 2017). We assessed diarrheal cases by clinical characteristics and season across age groups using monthly outpatient data (January 1998–June 2017). A strong seasonal pattern was identified, with 2 outbreaks occurring regularly in the wet and dry seasons. The timing of outbreaks diverged from that at the level of the country, where surface water is largely absent. Across age groups, the number of diarrheal cases was greater, on average, during the dry season. Demographic and clinical characteristics varied by season, underscoring the importance of environmental drivers. In the wet season, rainfall (8-week lag) had a significant influence on under-5 diarrhea, with a 10-mm increase in rainfall associated with an estimated 6.5% rise in the number of cases. Rainfall, minimum temperature, and river height were predictive of E. coli concentration, and increases in E. coli in the river were positively associated with diarrheal cases. In the dry season, river height (1-week lag) and maximum temperature (1- and 4-week lag) were significantly associated with diarrheal cases. During this period, a 1-meter drop in river height corresponded to an estimated 16.7% and 16.1% increase in reported diarrhea with a 1- and 4-week lag, respectively. In this region, as floodwaters receded from the surrounding floodplains, TSS levels increased and were positively associated with diarrheal cases (0- and 3-week lag). Populations living in this region utilized improved water sources, suggesting that hydrological variability and rapid water quality shifts in surface waters may compromise water treatment processes. Limitations include the potential influence of health beliefs and health seeking behaviors on data obtained through passive surveillance.
In flood pulse river—floodplain systems, hydrology and water quality dynamics can be highly variable, potentially impacting conventional water treatment facilities and the production of safe drinking water. In Southern Africa, climate change is predicted to intensify hydrological variability and the frequency of extreme weather events, amplifying the public health threat of waterborne disease in surface-water-dependent populations. Water sector development should be prioritized with urgency, incorporating technologies that are robust to local environmental conditions and expected climate-driven impacts. In populations with high HIV burdens, expansion of diarrheal disease surveillance and intervention strategies may also be needed. As annual flood pulse processes are predominantly influenced by climate controls in distant regions, country-level data may be inadequate to refine predictions of climate—health interactions in these systems.
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