Using big data to explore the links between watershed and human health
Public health issues such as malnutrition, water-borne diseases and mental illness cause significant hardship and millions of deaths annually. Case studies and anecdotes indicate that trends in natural ecosystems and human health are related but we lack a rigorous understanding of how. In particular, the impact of watershed disturbance on water-borne disease is still poorly understood at a global level. A clearer picture of these links would help improve the health of some of the world’s poorest people while providing a human health case for conserving some of the most important landscapes and seascapes.
The Watersheds and Human Health project, in which the Luc Hoffmann Institute is a partner, has tested a ‘big data’ approach to illustrate how the condition and management of watersheds affect human health. The project explores opportunities for the big data methodology for linking environment and health considerations in the management of WWF priority river basins. These insights will help improve the effectiveness of conservation investments by addressing a social dimension.
The project team has compiled, for the first time, the Demographic and Health Surveys administered for USAID over 20 years, covering over 500,000 households in more than 40 countries. They combined this data including health problems like diarrhoea, stunting and anaemia as well as socio-economic factors like education, income and sanitation with information on protected areas, land cover, climate, and infrastructure to produce a unique global database.
This research will increase our understanding of how land management and conservation can affect human health. It will improve the capacity to analyse environmental and human health implications under the framework of the Sustainable Development Goals.
Ultimately, the database will be made publicly available, along with examples of methods that can be used to analyse and estimate likely health impacts of projects proposed by WWF and others, demonstrating the potential value of conservation as a public health investment.