Americans have an obsession with chopping down trees. Whether it’s over pruning their yards or the corporate paving of paradise to put up a parking lot, trees go down. Trees collapse during natural disasters like hurricanes and fires. In other countries, though, the presence of trees can be the difference of life or death.
A University of Vermont-led study of 300,000 children in 35 nations says kids whose watersheds have greater tree cover are less likely to experience diarrheal disease, the second leading cause of death for children under the age of five.
Published in Nature Communications, the study is the first to quantify the connection between watershed quality and individual health outcomes of children at the global scale. The study was funded by the WWF, Rockefeller Foundation and other big-player NGOs who probably want to enforce Agenda 21. However, trees truly do clean watersheds, and the unchecked clearing of forestry is bound to cause issues. Clean water is the biggest necessity for third world countries to date.
“Looking at all of these diverse households in all these different countries, we find the healthier your watershed upstream, the less likely your kids are to get this potentially fatal disease,” says Taylor Ricketts of UVM’s Gund Institute for Environment.
Surprisingly, the team predicts that a 30 per cent increase in upstream tree cover in rural watersheds would have a comparable effect to improved water sanitation, such as the addition of indoor plumbing or toilets.
“This suggests that protecting watersheds, in the right circumstances, can double as a public health investment,” says Brendan Fisher of UVM’s Gund Institute and Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources. “This shows, very clearly, how ‘natural infrastructure’ can directly support human health and welfare.”
The research is the first to use a massive new database that will enable “big data” approaches to study links between human health and the environment, globally. The database features 30 years of USAID demographic and health surveys, with 150 variables for 500,000 households, including spatial data on the environment.
“We are not saying trees are more important than toilets and indoor plumbing,” says Diego Herrera, who led the paper as a UVM postdoctoral researcher, and is now at Environmental Defense Fund. “But these findings clearly show that forests and other natural systems can complement traditional water sanitation systems, and help compensate for a lack of infrastructure.”
The researchers hope the findings help governments and development agencies to improve the health and environment of children around the world. They add that more research is needed to more fully understand exactly how watershed forests impact the risk of diseases like diarrhea, which has many causes, including waterborne pathogens.
The research covers 35 nations across Africa, Southeast Asia, South America and the Caribbean, including Bangladesh, Philippines, Nigeria, Colombia, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO):
- 1 in 4 deaths of children under 5 years of age are attributable to unhealthy environments.
- 361,000 children die of diarrheal disease every year because of poor access to clean water, sanitation and hygiene.
“This new science indicates that investment in healthy forests and rivers can provide significant benefits for human health. WWF is now working with the University of Vermont research team to understand the implications of this evidence for the management of rivers and forests around the world. These are limited and precious natural resources. Our failure to look after them could have real consequences for human health.”
And that’s the part that concerns us – who gets to manage these environments?
The protection of “natural infrastructure” should have been key all along. It’s interesting that foundations made by corporate moguls are suddenly interested in protecting land. However, we must be vigilant that the protection of natural infrastructure isn’t used as a club of Agenda 21 tyranny over people’s heads – and that they may truly partake in the clean water resulting from new tree growth.