The Climate Crisis’ Impact on HIV, AIDS, and Malaria in the Global South

December 23, 2021 by Taylor Hall-Debnam

Fisherman paddling on Lake Victoria.

Climate Change is already having public health consequences in the global south. Global leaders have a duty to respond.

The environmental effects of climate change–extreme heat, frequent and intense storms, rising sea levels, and droughts, among others—are physically devastating communities across the world. The same phenomena also exacerbate complex social disparities, political problems, and health epidemics like the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) and Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS) epidemic, and malaria.[1],[2]  The eradication of HIV/AIDS and malaria are outlined in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).[3]

Although the impacts of climate change are global, its severity is not evenly dispersed. Low-and-middle-income (LMIC) countries, and disadvantaged populations within their borders, experience the worst effects of climate change.[4]Similarly, new HIV/AIDS and malaria cases are concentrated in LMIC countries and amongst disadvantaged populations within their borders.[5]

Today, HIV/AIDS is primarily concentrated in Africa, South and Southeast Asia.[6] Among these populations, women and girls are most vulnerable to HIV infection.[7] Approximately 6,000 girls acquire HIV each week.[8] In specific contexts, the rise of HIV incidence is exacerbated by the physical effects of climate change.

Climate change causes declines in crop yields, animal products, and fish catches, reducing household incomes, worsening food security, and leading people to participate in risky behaviors.[9] For example, researchers in Lesotho found that droughts were directly proportional to a five-fold increase in the number of girls selling sex and a three-fold increase in those being forced into sexual relations.[10]

In Nduru Beach, Kenya, located on the shore of Lake Victoria, climate degradation contributes to HIV incidence. Lake Victoria is a riparian resource shared by three countries: Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania.[11] The fish of Lake Victoria (tilapia and Nile perch) are integral to life as a source of income and food in surrounding villages and are exported across the globe for financial gain.[12] However, in Lake Victoria droughts and saltwater intrusion into lagoons affect species that are the basis of aquaculture.[13]

Along with Lake Victoria, the fish business is divided by gender.[14] Men own boats and go fishing, and women purchase fish from them to sell at the market.[15] The lake’s fish population started declining in the 1970s because of overfishing and environmental problems. Thus, fishermen were not catching enough to supply all the women.[16] So, the fishermen began offering a quid pro quo: sex in exchange for a steady supply of fish. The risk of contracting HIV is elevated for individuals who participate in the practice because fishing communities of Kenya have an HIV rate of 30 to 40 percent.[17] However, for many women, the survival of their families depends on this risky model of the fishing business.[18] Along Lake Victoria, climate degradation contributes to food insecurity and poverty, which fuels the sex trade, and eventually increases the risks of contracting HIV.

Climate change’s impacts on malaria are more direct than HIV/AIDS. Malaria is a water-borne disease that thrives in hot environments. Rainfall, increasing temperature, and humidity are three variables that most influence the transmission of malaria. Climate change will affect all three.[19] Nearly 800,000 children under the age of 5 in sub-Saharan Africa die each year, making it the third-largest killer of children worldwide[20]. In eastern Africa, flooding in 2007 created new breeding sites for disease vectors such as mosquitoes, triggering epidemics of Rift Valley Fever and increasing levels of malaria.[21] Further, as regions of the highlands of eastern Africa and areas of southern Africa become hotter, more humid, and more populated, they will become more suitable for malaria transmission.[22] Without intervention, the strength and incidence of malaria will increase.

In 1990, the Assembly of the Council of Europe adopted the Recommendation to the Parliamentary Assembly on the Formulation of a European Charter and a European Convention on Environmental Protection containing an individual’s definitive rights and a respective legal duty. It stated that “Every person has the fundamental right to an environment and living conditions conducive to his good health, well-being, and full development of the human personality.”[23] Further, the African Charter of Human and Peoples’ Rights stated that “All peoples shall have the right to a general satisfactory environment favorable to their development.”[24] These documents reveal the direct linkage between the environment and health, people’s rights to a suitable environment and good health, as well as a state’s duty to provide these basic amenities.

Four realities are apparent: climate change and human health are inextricably linked, the state has a duty to intervene on environmental issues, prioritizing health epidemics like HIV/AIDS and malaria is necessary for their demise, and climate adaptation and mitigation efforts could dramatically reduce the risk of HIV and malaria across LMIC countries, especially those located on the African continent.


[1] Alec Williams, The United States Needs a Plan for Climate-Driven Migration, Geo. Env’t Law Rev. ( Jan. 29, 2021) (emphasizing the physical and social impacts of climate change),

[2] Aziz Bouzaher, Shantayanan Devarjan & Brian T. Ngo, Is Climate Change a Threat or Opportunity for Africa?, World Bank Anniversary Conference of the African Economic Research Consortium, 1 (2008).

[3] World Health Org., Sustainable Development Goals,

(last visited November 15, 2021).

[4] John Vidal, Climate change will hit poor countries hardest, study shows, The Guardian (September 27, 2013).

[5] UNAIDS, (last visited November 10, 2021).

[6] Press Release, UNAIDS, Women, Adolescent Girls and the HIV Response (March 5, 2020)

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Bouzaher, Devarjan, & Ngo, surpa note 2, at 11 (2008).

[10] Inna Lazareva, Climate Shocks Threaten Gains Against HIV in Africa, Researchers Say, Reuters (Jan. 31, 2019)

[11] Joseph Awange, June Aluoch, Laban A. Ogallo, Monica Omulo & Phillip Omondi, Frequency And Severity Of Drought In The Lake Victoria Region (Kenya) And Its Effects On Food Security, Curtin University of Technology Climate Research. Vol. 33: 135-142 (Feb. 22, 2007) 10.3354/cr033135

[12] Davis, Rebecca and Silver, Marc, No Sex For Fish: How Women In A Fishing Village Are Fighting For Power, National Public Radio(December 26, 2019)

[13] Bouzaher, Devarjan, & Ngo, surpa note 2, 12 (2008).

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] Id.

[17] Id.

[18] Id.

[19] Id.

[20] Id.

[21] Id.

[22] Id.

[23]Edith Brown Weiss, Stephen C. McCaffrey, Daniel Barstow Magrow, A. Dan Tarlock, Int’l Env’t Law and Policy, 448, 2007.

[24] Id. at 446.