Action required now – or Africa’s environment will get worse

A recent report assessing the state of Africa’s environment predicts that things are going to get worse unless rapid action is taken both by African governments and the rest of the world. The report chronicles Africa’s past, where it is now, and possible directions for the future. It addresses four major topics; climate, air pollution, biodiversity and coastal and marine environments.

This report, called Africa Environment Outlook (AEO), is the most comprehensive and authoritative assessment of Africa’s environment produced to date. It has been compiled by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) for the African Ministerial Conference on the Environment (AMCEN).

The report’s main message is that sharp increases in air and water pollution, land degradation, droughts and wildlife losses all threaten Africa unless urgent action is taken to deliver environmentally-friendly development for its citizens.

AEO notes important changes in climate over the past century and the impacts that this has had on African people. These people, and their economies, are heavily dependent on rain-fed agriculture so the reduction in rainfall in Africa in the past four decades has had direct effects on the success of crops and the amount of food available. Natural disasters, particularly drought in the Sahel, have also become both more common and more severe. If the decrease in rainfall continues, this is predicted to increase the number of plant and animal extinctions, severely threatening species such as zebra and wildebeest.

UNEP estimates that emissions of carbon dioxide have risen eight-fold since 1950 in Africa. Despite contributing very little to global, greenhouse emissions, Africa is extremely vulnerable to the impacts of global warming as a result of its dependency on agriculture and lack of financial resources to offset these impacts. Recently, renewable energy schemes, such as wind, solar and waste-into-energy projects, are starting to be introduced into some countries such as Algeria and Morocco.

Africa has the highest rate of urbanisation in the world and this, combined with the rapid increase in motor vehicles across the continent, are contributing to rapidly increasing levels of air pollution. Many countries have brought in air quality standards and regulations to control pollution but current lack of resources makes enforcement difficult.

The African continent, which contains some of the most species-rich areas in the world, is also seeing its biodiversity severely threatened. The lack of awareness of the value of biological resources, the inadequate enforcement of conservation laws and economic pressures to boost timber, crops and mineral exports are putting increased pressure on the continent’s wildlife. Actions to protect, conserve and promote sustainable use of African biodiversity and indigenous knowledge, in many cases through partnerships with local communities or tourist operators, have gone underway in many countries.

These threats are not limited to the land says AEO. Africa’s rich coastal and marine areas are under threat from pollution erosion, overharvesting of resources and the potential impacts of climate change. Indeed, an estimated 38% of coastal ecosystems, such as coral reefs and mangrove swamps, are under threat from developments such as ports, the growth of coastal settlements and their sewage discharges. To try and stop such degradation, countries are starting to introduce laws, requiring environmental impact assessment before developments can be undertaken.

Many African countries are now trying to address some of the root causes of environmental degradation through initiatives such as the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD). But, according to the report, a much larger effort is needed to steer Africa on a prosperous, environmentally-sustainable course.

A serious problem is that with all the wars, famine, disease and poverty that are plaguing Africa, most governments have more pressing needs than to deal with their environmental problems or to try and achieve sustainability. Unfortunately, social and environmental problems cannot be dissociated and it is therefore important that developed countries, which are the ones most concerned with environmental issues, help Africa in achieving these goals.

“There is a new, more supportive, mood in the international community to overcome Africa’s difficulties.” says Klaus Toepfer, Executive Director of UNEP. This is, however, a very delicate matter, as developed countries who try to help developing countries or to lecture them on the need to preserve their environmental resources, are often seen as “ecological imperialists”. This report marks an important step in the right direction. As Toepfer says, “The right decisions cannot be made without the right facts.”

Story by Amelie Knapp

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