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3rd Africa Environment Outlook Addresses Key Environmental Risks for Human Health

Environmental Health ImpactsNairobi – Africa’s leaders should put implementing environment and health issues at the top of their national and continent-wide policies if growing challenges such as air pollution, vector-borne diseases and chemical exposure are to be addressed, according to a new report compiled by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) released on February 21.

African Environment Outlook-3 (AEO-3), commissioned by the African Ministerial Conference on the Environment (AMCEN), places special focus on links between environment and health, pointing to the statistic that environmental risks contribute 28 per cent of Africa’s disease burden. Diarrhoea, respiratory infections and malaria account for 60 per cent of known environmental health impacts in Africa.

In particular, particulate matter – the air pollutant with greatest impact on human health – is of great concern in poor rural areas, where little access to cleaner stoves and fuels causes significant health impacts through indoor pollution. Air pollution in Africa can be 10 to 30 times higher than World Health Organization (WHO) limits.

Other issues highlighted that have a major impact include the degradation of health-promoting goods and services such as food and medicinal plants made possible by land and marine biodiversity. For example, 80 per cent of Africa’s rural population depends on traditional medicines harvested from nature.

The report also spotlights a lack of capacity to deal with the growing effects of climate change; inadequate water, sanitation and hygiene – in 2010, only 60 per cent of the sub-Saharan Africa population had access to safe water; and poor waste disposal practices.

The AEO-3 Summary for Policy Makers is intended to provide information that can assist AMCEN member countries strengthen capacity for policy making and advocacy on national, regional and global levels.

“Africa’s population is growing at the fastest rate in the world and its economy is expanding at a commensurate rate, yet not enough focus has been placed on the role environmental concerns play in ensuring the wellbeing of this expanding, dynamic continent’s citizens,” said UNEP Executive Director and UN Under-Secretary General Achim Steiner.

“Africa is moving into a new phase that could see the continent become a major player in the transition to a global inclusive Green Economy, but to do that, it needs a healthy population with guaranteed access to well-managed natural resources,” he added. “AEO-3 gives policy makers a clear pathway to a sustainable and healthy future by focusing on the areas that need urgent attention, showing how to remove barriers to policy implementation, and highlighting new policies.”

The report highlights emerging issues and assesses trends related to environmental change and the consequences for human health in the region, and proposes new policy directions for enabling transformative changes for a sustainable future.

In addition, the report found that many good policies to address environmental change already exist but are hampered by weak implementation. However, the AEO-3 assessment points to a number of actions, which if adequately taken, can make promising policies work effectively.

“As this report highlights, African governments are all too aware of the challenges facing the continent in terms of environmental impacts on human health. There are significant on-going efforts to combat these challenges, including putting in place many relevant policies,” said H.E. Terezya Huvisa, Minister of State – Environment of the United Republic of Tanzania and President of AMCEN.

“However, these policies must be strongly implemented to have an impact, and enforcement mechanisms should be put in place and strengthened to reduce the negative consequences,” she added. “If the recommendations in AEO-3 are followed, our citizens can look forward to healthier, and ultimately more productive, lives.”

Key Messages and Policy Recommendations

Specifically, the report seeks to deliver key messages and policy recommendations, including:

  • Environmental and health issues deserve priority consideration in national development.

  • Indoor and outdoor air pollution, unhygienic or unsafe food, inadequate waste disposal, absent or unsafe vector control, and exposure to chemicals are key environmental health hazards in most African countries.

  • Effective reduction of indoor air pollution requires rethinking national electrification programmes and accelerating access to improved technologies and alternative sources of cleaner energy.

  • Measures such as Community Based Natural Resources Management and Payment for Ecosystem Services should be scaled-up to conserve biodiversity, which provides services such as food and medicinal plants and thus promotes human health.

  • Chemicals bring benefits in many sectors, but if improperly handled, can result in environmental pollution and serious risks to human health. Recommended policy directions include strengthening the knowledge and evidence base of health risks; accelerating domestication and implementation of the Basel, Stockholm and Bamako Conventions; and including issues relating to e-waste in national legislation.

  • Coastal Degradation in AfricaClimate change and variability impact human health because of Africa’s underdeveloped capacity to cope with the negative impacts. Policy options include integrating climate-related scientific findings into decision making; building adaptive capacity; and strengthening early warning systems, preparedness and response.

  • Coastal and marine resources contribute to human health and need to be conserved and used sustainably. In addition to scaling up Integrated Coastal Zone Management, there is need for effective surveillance in order to protect the coastal and marine environment from degradation and pollution.

  • Access to safe water and adequate sanitation is vital to human health, and therefore, requires action to improve infrastructure; reduce pollution of available water sources; and address poor hygiene.

  • Assessing the suitability of land-use changes, regulating large-scale land acquisition, and promoting technologies that enhance land productivity and more-efficient water use can promote sustainable land management and boost food and nutrition security.

  • Adequate adaptation to domestic and global uncertainties, which affect human health, can benefit from scenario analyses that emphasize the various ways in which environmental management may impact human health well into the future and make it possible to make flexible long-term plans.

  • Options to improve weak implementation of existing policies include: adequate data and information systems; stakeholder engagement; institutional mechanisms to ensure alignment and collaboration; capacity development of all stakeholders; and clear implementation roadmaps with realistic targets and funding mechanism.