New Project Announcement: The Intersection of Mental Health, Food Insecurity, Climate Change and Malnutrition in East Africa

June 28, 2024

The African Population and Health Research Centre (APHRC), in collaboration with our partners—the International Centre for Research in Agroforestry (CIFOR-ICRAF), the University of Nairobi (UoN), PELUM Kenya, the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), Oxford University, and Loughborough University—along with the county governments of Laikipia, Samburu, and Turkana and national government line ministries of health and climate change, among others, will undertake a three-year transformative project funded by Wellcome titled: “Visibilizing Climate Change Impacts on Nutrition and Mental Health among Vulnerable Populations in East African Drylands” (#Visibilize4ClimateAction Project).

Climate Change is one of the greatest burdens facing humanity and is the single biggest threat to all life on earth. In East Africa, there is a recent but growing consciousness about the impact, mitigation, and adaption strategies of Climate Change. For instance, during the Sixth Session of the United Nations Environment Assembly, UNEA-6, at Gigiri in Nairobi. The President of Kenya, H.E William Ruto, expressed concerns over the escalating adverse impacts of climate change, which pose significant threats to humanity. In addition, in his address to Members of the European Parliament last year, the President called for stronger international cooperation to fight climate change, combat poverty, and tackle conflicts. 

Moreover, Kenya had the pleasure of jointly hosting the inaugural Africa Climate Summit (ACS) with the African Union Commission (AUC) from 4-6 September 2023. President William Ruto championed this inaugural ACS to serve as a platform to showcase progress, exchange perspectives, and begin to converge on common priorities for global discussions on climate change. The summit addressed issues of increasing exposure to climate change and frequent and intense crises, its associated costs globally, particularly in Africa, and urgent actions required to mitigate these challenges. The conference also made a case to have African leaders make ambitious pledges and commitments towards adopting a “Pledging and Commitment Framework” for climate change. 

Despite this recognition and increased political attention to the effects of climate change, the relationship between food security, malnutrition, climate change, and mental health is underexplored and with limited documentation.  Climate change’s effects on human health have been extensively documented, including reduced food security which is one of the main concerns of human-induced climate change. However, evidence concerning the direct impact of climate change on malnutrition remains sparse despite projections indicating its substantial contribution to climate change-related morbidity and mortality in 2030 and 2050. 

In a recent systematic review and meta-analysis, a significant relationship between climate change proxies (climate variability, floods, drought) and nutrition was identified, with drought conditions increasing the odds of wasting and underweight by almost 50%. Extreme heat reduces farmers’ productivity, impacting agricultural productivity. Impacts of variations in crop yields on nutrition have been indicated

Climate change also has a profound impact on mental health, directly and indirectly.  A meta-analysis of 163 studies and data from 142 countries found that disasters can induce mental health disorders. According to a recent study, more than half of the population in six African countries acknowledged climate change’s adverse effects on their mental well-being. Farmers, in particular, face heightened mental health challenges in the face of climate change and variability.

Malnutrition remains a major issue in the East African region. About one-third (33%) of children under 5 years of age are stunted. A study conducted in Kenyan drylands found that local and scientific knowledge pointed to a link between climate change and variability and food security. Furthermore, our work in Kenyan drylands ( USAID NAWIRI Project) indicates the impact of increasing drought on food security and malnutrition and the opportunity for food production during rainy seasons. Evidence on the mental health burden in East Africa is limited. According to the Kenya National Adolescent Mental Health Survey (K – NAMHS), which was conducted by the African Population and Health Research Centre (APHRC), 44.3% of adolescents aged 10 to 17 reported suffering a mental health problem in the previous year, with anxiety being the most common (26.7%). Previous small-scale research in Kenya found that mental health issues affect both adults and adolescents. In a flagship report, Kenya’s Ministry of Health identified a link between drought flooding and mental illness.