CHIANG RAI – In the Lower Mekong Sub-Region, changing patterns and intensity of work, lifestyle, and even relaxation, are posing new health risks and challenges.
Is the economic development model by design sacrificing the health – in terms of body and mind – of the majority in the interest of so-called economic growth? We posit that structural changes in the Mekong region – often due to government economic development policies whether it’s in agricultural production or urban work patterns – are leading to conditions causing ill health.
Our landscapes, especially our public spaces – our commons – are undergoing huge changes that inherently affect the health of our body and mind. We don’t need here to go into a litany of the terrible ecosystem damages caused in the rush to expand infrastructure or industrialization. The ecological impacts in three areas illustrate the seriousness of these health impacts: our rivers and wetlands, the air we breathe, and the food we eat.
The prolific creation of urban and peri-urban housing and other infrastructure has resulted in the extensive draining and conversion of wetlands; as these areas that used to both store and slowly release the monsoon rains disappear, flooding is displaced to elsewhere. This has resulted in the wider spread of diseases that were previously seen as under control: dengue and malaria.
Air pollution especially in areas near industrial zones or coal-fired plants is wreaking a terrible cost in terms of respiratory and other illnessess while in urban areas people are so used to living, commuting and working within an ever-present smog of vehicle and other smoke.
Mostly it’s become difficult to know where our food is coming from or how it’s grown, except for those who grow their own food to eat for themselves (a small minority). All kinds and types of fruits and vegetables to meat and fish are now available throughout the year. But although our food choices have multiplied, so also the incidence of various food related ailments ranging from stomach disorders to stomach viral epidemics.
Health and medicine
The Mekong region is full of contradictions. Those who can live healthily and those that cannot. Malnutrition occurs alongside excess.
Malnutrition and diets are of concern affecting health in all the Mekong countries. But obesity and overweight are becoming serious problems, and not just as expected in urban areas. Thailand has been in the spotlight recently: now the country’s going through enormous changes in appetites, habits and lifestyles that are leading to what the World Health Organization (WHO) terms as “non-communicable disease risk factors” 1.
How illness is treated is of critical concern as the spread of both infectious diseases and the use of antibiotics are increasing. We are increasingly becoming more dependent on medicinal drugs and less trusting of our body’s own inherent ability to combat minor illness, and recover health and vitality. The latter method can be more beneficial in the long-term given that new and more infectious and sometimes epidemic-scale diseases are emerging due to the problems of the changing climate and the corresponding changes to our ecosystems.
It is now prevalent not only for doctors to prescribe but also patients to demand they be given antibiotics even for simple ailments like a cold that needs nothing more than a few days rest 2. Meanwhile our ingestion of industrially produced chickens and pork that often have been fed antibiotics to fight diseases is also making diseases more resistant. Changing our perspectives, and more importantly, our practices with regard to diets and medicinal treatments is crucial.
The food we eat, we often tend not to think of, or are mostly unaware of where it comes from. But in many Mekong and Asian cultures, food is also considered as medicine. There are prescriptions of what kinds of food to eat and when; some kinds of fruits, vegetables or meats are considered “hot” while others “cold” subsequently having different effects on the human body. This knowledge about food and its benefits is becoming of dwindling relevance as, in our industrial era, food is trucked and shipped from distant places.
We need to rethink our views of health not just as of our physical entities but also of the body and mind. Younger generations need the opportunity to reconnect with their food, and be aware of what they are eating, where it comes from, and what it contains. The holistic policies that are needed range from improving our work environment to ensuring a clean (livable) environment. We can better incorporate local knowledge of food and ecosystems back into understanding of health and disease prevention. From a public health perspective, health should be considered in all the public policies of the region – so called “healthy public policy” – including economic development policies.