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Asian nations pledge to tackle health problems linked to environment

THAILAND: Fourteen Asian countries pledged to tackle health problems related to everything from climate change to air pollution that cause the deaths of nearly 7 million people each year.

The countries - including economic giants Japan and China but also impoverished nations such as Laos - agreed Thursday to improve coordination between their ministries of health and environment, and work to establish national frameworks to fight environmental health problems.

“We needed political will and we got that today,” said Supat Wangwongwatana, director general of Thailand’s Pollution Control Department in the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment.

“Fourteen countries committed to cooperate and work to combat environmental problems and improve the health of the people,” he said. “That’s an achievement.”

No money, however, was committed during the two-day meeting - dubbed the Bangkok Declaration on Environment and Health - nor did the countries set any specific goals.

Water pollution and hazardous waste were also identified as environmental problems that impact people’s health.

The ministerial forum, the first of its kind in the region, comes as a growing number of health problems are being linked to environmental changes, especially global warming associated with greenhouse gases.

The World Health Organization estimates climate change has already directly or indirectly killed more than 1 million people globally since 2000. Another 800,000 deaths worldwide each year have been linked to air pollution.

Last month, health officials from more than a dozen countries gathered in Malaysia to hear how rising temperatures were sparking more deadly landslides in Nepal, a rise in dengue fever cases throughout Asia, and increased flooding in India and Bangladesh.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a U.N. network of 2,000 scientists, predicted earlier this year that droughts caused by rising temperatures will lower crop yields and raise malnutrition in some areas, and spark a surge in diseases such as diarrhea.

People living in low-lying coastal areas will also face more storms, flooding, and saltwater intrusion into fresh groundwater that is vital for drinking, it said.

The ministers said environment and health problems had previously been tackled separately by most countries, but with Thursday’s declaration they hoped that would change.

“Since the capacities of countries in the region to deal with environmental problems are limited, we need to have better intersectoral coordination,” said Vallop Thainuea, an official from Thailand’s Ministry of Public Health.

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