The World Health Organisation (WHO) on Monday urged governments to focus on creating green public spaces such as parks and wetlands, saying they offer numerous health benefits. Emphasising on the connection between human health and natural and man-made environments on World Environment Day, WHO Regional Director for South East Asia, Poonam Khetrapal Singh said rapid urbanisation was challenging the ecosystem, severely affecting physical and mental health being. With more than a third of all people in the South East Asia Region living in towns, the poorly managed urbanisation was resulting in increased levels of ambient air pollution, contaminated food and drinking water, poor sanitation, noise pollution from traffic and cramped living conditions, Singh said.
Noncommunicable diseases (NCDs)–many of them environment-related–account for around 8.5 million deaths in the region every year while consumption of food containing traces of heavy metals and other detritus was causing health issues including neurological and kidney damage, she said. Contaminated water sources were contributing to antimicrobial resistance (AMR) among other effects, while a lack of space was creating a sense of physical and mental confinement. Globally, these and other environmental risks cause an estimated 12.6 million deaths a year, she said.
“By creating and promoting green public spaces in urban settings, governments across the region can mitigate these outcomes and advance public health and sustainable development,” she said. She outlined WHO’s Healthy Cities Initiative which states that green public spaces such as parks and sports fields, woods and natural meadows and wetlands have multiple benefits. Referring to research, Singh said people who used open spaces were more likely to get the physical activity needed to keep NCDs at bay throughout the life-course.
This would prove pivotal to achieving the region’s 2030 goal of reducing premature NCD-related deaths by a third. Singh said green public spaces would help tackle air pollution as trees not only produce oxygen, they also filter out harmful air pollution, including airborne particulate matter.
Well-managed natural water sources would help make clean and safe water accessible to all, while improved wastewater management will enhance the aquatic environment. This in turn would aid the battle against AMR by keeping antibiotic residues out of the ecosystem, she said.
More generally, better management of open spaces would help protect against e-waste dumping and other forms of toxic pollution that can contaminate soil and enter the food chain. Besides, the creation of green public spaces should be considered essential, especially when countries were looking to address mental health issues as analysis suggested that physical activity in a natural environment could help remedy mild depression and reduce physiological stress indicators, she said.