Investigating Climate Change & Health – Raissa Sorgho on a transdisciplinary project

Raissa Sorgho is a Master student in International Health and research assistant at the Institut of Public Health in Heidelberg.  She was born in Burkina Faso, grew up in the US, holds a degree in Biology. Besides her research she has been working for NGOs such as Plan International and also with UNICEF. We met at the CVV Young Researcher’s Seminar and COP 21-side event on Climate Change and Health, where Raissa was invited to present her great research on climate change and its interfaces with malnutrition in Burkina Faso! It was a pleasure to ask her a few questions following this meeting and now to share her views on transdisciplinary research techniques and what role advocacy plays for her as a researcher.

 What drives your interest to research the effects of climate change on health?

I have always been fascinated by systems; the way hundreds of interconnected factors link together to create one functioning system. As a biology major in university, I studied biological, animal and earth system. A reoccurring subject was the irreversible effect of humans on the earth, which would soon put into question the sustainability of the earth systems. This loaming effect is today coined Climate Change.

In the agricultural fields of Bourasso examining grain crop yields (Burkina Faso, 2014)
In the agricultural fields of Bourasso examining grain crop yields (Burkina Faso, 2014)

While some still think the concept of climate change a theory, I have seen first hand in my home country of Burkina Faso, the devastative effects of changing climate weather patterns on both the earth and its human inhabitants. This quickly concretized climate change for me, and the crossing point between humans and climate in regards to health captured my attention. This is how I became fascinated with not just earth systems, but the effects climate change will have on these systems and how this will then affect the health of humans.

Your study investigates how climate change affects malnutrition in Burkina Faso. Food insecurity is a recognized indirect health effect of climate change, but how can science actually generate evidence on this complex correlation, which methods and indicators did you use for your research?

In many West African countries such as Burkina Faso, the majority of citizens are subsistence farmers. This means that agriculture is not only key to most families’ nutrition, but it’s also their primary source of income. Although climate change is listed as an “indirect cause” of food insecurity, for these farmers the relationship is as realistic and as “direct” as could be. Climate change directly threatens the agricultural potential of all these families, meaning their financial and nutritional stability.

Although the link for these farmers is rather obvious and direct, science requires much evidence before such a statement can be confirmed. Research serves to eliminate (or at least reduce) some of the external factors (noise) entangled in the complex correlations. Researchers reduce the noise around the relationship of interest through strict methodology and by controlling variable and controlling for confounding factors.

Part one of my study aims precisely to pilot and refine the tools, which can help detangle the threads between climate change, agriculture and malnutrition. The proof of purpose pilot study is by nature qualitative and takes palace in one village in Burkina Faso. To test the hypothesis, this is rather appropriate because Bourasso is average in respect of the country’s’ climate, temperature and population. But more importantly Bourasso is a village within an HDSS (Holographic Data Storage System) site. Le Centre de Recherche de Nouna (CRSN), since 1992 is a demographic surveillance system, which is rich in demographic and weather data. This means the study can look at climate data for 20+ years and will have specific data on the households and individuals in the village of Bourasso.

The project chose to look at malnutrition in children under the age of 5, as this is indicative of food availability in a country. Furthermore, malnutrition at a young age also foreshadows the mental development and health of individuals at adulthood. A Household have children under 5 (well nourished and malnourished) became the main criteria in the methodology behind the selection of households for the study. The other criteria included, living in Bourasso and being subsistence farmers. The households with well-nourished children were randomly selected from the HDSS database and those with malnourished children were randomly selected from malnutrition registers of the Bourasso health center. This is only part of the rigorous planning and methodology required to successfully structure the research exploring such a complex question.

Much research creates evidence on how to change policies or behaviors for better health; however also, often this potential ultimately remains unrealized. Thus it would be interesting to hear your view on the role of researchers in this phenomenon. Do you personally see yourself as a researcher or as a researcher and advocate?

Currently, because there is so little evidence on my research topic, the next steps (which as you mentioned include policy changes) have not yet been taken. The point of this project is to generate evidence. It’s also to bring attention to the African continent and the consequences it will suffer from climate change. The vast majority of all climate change research is based in and is about the global North (more specifically Europe). This is disproportionate to the magnitude of the effects countries in the south will face.

I like to consider myself an advocate, but I make it a point to separate my advocacy and my research. My research is geared on malnutrition, because that’s a grave problem that will affect my country, but I cannot mix advocacy into it. For my evidence-based research to be strong it must be lead by methodology, not advocacy. But post publication, I hope this evidence will be used by food advocacy agencies (like Oxfam, FAO…) to draw attention and support for their relevant projects.

At the COP21 Planetary Health site event hosted by the Centre Virchow-Villerme (France, 2015)
At the COP21 Planetary Health site event hosted by the Centre Virchow-Villerme (France, 2015)

Questions:  Fabian Moser from the Global Health AG at Charité.

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