Forest cover associated with improved child health and nutrition

September 4, 2013 by WASHplus

Forest cover associated with improved child health and nutrition: evidence from the Malawi Demographic and Health Survey and satellite data. Glob Health Sci Pract, August 2013.

Kiersten B Johnson

Healthy forests provide human communities with a host of important ecosystem services, including the provision of food, clean water, fuel, and natural medicines. Yet globally, about 13 million hectares of forests are lost every year, with the biggest losses in Africa and South America. As biodiversity loss and ecosystem degradation due to deforestation continue at unprecedented rates, with concomitant loss of ecosystem services, impacts on human health remain poorly understood. Here, we use data from the 2010 Malawi Demographic and Health Survey, linked with satellite remote sensing data on forest cover, to explore and better understand this relationship. Our analysis finds that forest cover is associated with improved health and nutrition outcomes among children in Malawi. Children living in areas with net forest cover loss between 2000 and 2010 were 19% less likely to have a diverse diet and 29% less likely to consume vitamin A-rich foods than children living in areas with no net change in forest cover. Conversely, children living in communities with higher percentages of forest cover were more likely to consume vitamin A-rich foods and less likely to experience diarrhea. Net gain in forest cover over the 10-year period was associated with a 34% decrease in the odds of children experiencing diarrhea (P = .002). Given that our analysis relied on observational data and that there were potential unknown factors for which we could not account, these preliminary findings demonstrate only associations, not causal relationships, between forest cover and child health and nutrition outcomes. However, the findings raise concerns about the potential short- and long-term impacts of ongoing deforestation and ecosystem degradation on community health in Malawi, and they suggest that preventing forest loss and maintaining the ecosystem services of forests are important factors in improving human health and nutrition outcomes.