2. Healthy Environments

Thematic Area Research & Innovation Goals:

Identify how global climate change and environmental degradation at local, regional and global levels pose risks for decreasing equities in human health and nutrition.  Develop sustainable solutions on how to best act to protect health and nutrition.

Image credit: Bartosz Hadyniak/Getty Images


Concept Summary

Rationale for Prioritizing Healthy Environments

Two major underlying sets of problems that challenge us in our efforts to preserve healthy environments, maintain the ecosystem services associated with them, and limit inequities associated with unhealthier environmental conditions among poor and marginalized populations. One set of problems is typified by greenhouse gas accumulation in the atmosphere. It is a problem at the global level: both the causes and the effects are global. The second set of problems relates to inequity: High-income countries make a much larger contribution to the problem, both historically and currently. At the same time, low-income countries and poor people within countries are more likely to suffer the consequence. The poor are more likely to live in more precarious environments (semi-arid areas, low-lying islands etc.). They are also less resilient to the anticipated climate changes due to limited technical capacity in local institutions and organizations, and fewer resources to devote to local adaptation.


Preserving healthy environments must encompass efforts to protect land, air, water and biodiversity that depends on different ecosystems. A major threat to healthy environments is the global demand for extraction of resources (mining, and industrial production, local population pressures with resultant demands on land, water and other resources. The 2005 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment found that 60% of the world’s ecosystem resources were degraded or used in unsustainable ways (Hassan et al 2005). Local and regional environment degradation may take many forms: chemical and microbiological contamination of water, particulates in the air from forest fires, coal-burning power plants, factories, erosion and contamination of soil, depletion of aquifers, loss of forests and wetlands and many others. Each of these can have effects on agricultural production and nutrition, and also directly on the occurrence of infectious and/or non-communicable diseases.

Without investments in protecting environments and ecosystems, and addressing exposure to environmental threats, there will be an increasing likelihood of nonlinear changes. These are accelerating, or abrupt changes, such as disease emergence, abrupt alterations in water quality, creation of dead zones in coastal waters (reduced level of oxygen causing species to be unable to survive), collapse of fisheries, and shifts in regional climates. Dry land ecosystems, which are characterized by their lack of water, are where human population is growing most rapidly, but poverty is highest.

Garbage in canal in Lagos, Nigeria. Image credit: Peeter Viisimaa/Getty Images ©

Garbage in canal in Lagos, Nigeria. Image credit: Peeter Viisimaa/Getty Images ©

Research Priorities

areas needing further focus

  • Examine sustainable and demanded alternatives for reducing indoor and outdoor air pollution and their impacts on health

  • Find ways to make front-line health facilities more energy, water, and refrigeration self-sufficient

  • Find ways to re-use water efficiently for communities with water scarcity

  • Understand and intervene in health, nutrition, and agricultural impacts of rising salinity, and degrading land in fragile deltaic regions

  • Develop new program models for combining community health and environmental sustainability

Theme Directors

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Peter Winch is co-director for Healthy Environments. As Professor in the Social and Behavioral Interventions Program in the Department of International Health at the Bloomberg School of Public Health, he teaches courses on qualitative and formative research and applied medical anthropology. His work aims to: 1) improve the health of mothers and children in areas where access to health facilities is poor or non-existent, and 2) develop and evaluate behavior change interventions and health system responses to global environmental threats.

Johannes Urpelainen is co-director for Healthy Environments. Urpelainen is the director and Prince Sultan bin Abdulaziz Professor of Energy, Resources and Environment at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and the founding director of the Initiative for Sustainable Energy Policy (ISEP). He teaches action-oriented classes on energy and environmental policy to equip the next generation of global leaders with deep knowledge, advanced analytical skills, and a passion for transformational social change. As a leading energy policy expert, Urpelainen frequently advises governments, international organizations, and the private sector on energy and environment.

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Further updates & resources about this AHW thematic Priority

Articles & Media Coverage