Environment: keep it real

There is increasing concern among politicians and NGOs about the effects of Africa’s economic growth on people’s health.

There is increasing concern among politicians and NGOs about the effects of Africa’s economic growth on people’s health.

As anyone who has breathed the not-so-fresh air of Lagos or Nairobi can attest, the soot, pollution and traffic fumes of a growing city do indeed sit heavily on the lungs.

Africa’s ministers gather this week in Libreville, Gabon to discuss these problems.  But before they get too carried away with grandiose plans, they need to get some perspective.

Ever since modern Man first stepped out of east Africa, he has been in a constant struggle with the environment, which by turns tries to freeze, overheat, starve and poison us.

The good news is that it is relatively easy to prevent the environment from killing us--but only if governments stop getting in the way.

Take the most basic necessities of life, cooking and warmth.  For many people too poor to afford electricity, gas or kerosene, the only option is the fuels used by Man since the dawn of time: wood, dried dung and crop residues.

When burnt indoors, these fuels give off noxious smoke with dangerous levels of chemicals such as benzene, formaldehyde and carbon monoxide. 

The result:  chest infections are the biggest global killer of children, claiming at least two million under-fives every year. Who would have thought that the oldest task in human history, making a wood fire, could also be the most deadly?

We all need water but streams, rivers and aquifers are full of nasty micro-organisms and parasites, especially without sewage facilities for human waste:  some 1.5 million children are killed annually by ancient water-borne diseases such as cholera and dysentery, making dirty water the second biggest killer on the planet.

This need not happen.  Greater prosperity has allowed all of Europe, North America and large parts of Asia to have electricity, superseding dirty fuels such as wood. Similarly, practically everyone has access to a flushing toilet and clean running water.

These advances have consigned “environmental” diseases such as cholera to the history books. England, once a hotbed of cholera, has not had an outbreak since 1866. 

By contrast, just last year an outbreak in Angola infected 3,000 people. Epidemics are still common all over Africa and southern Asia.

Unfortunately for the poor in Africa, many governments actively conspire to prevent access to clean fuels and water, mainly by clinging to the outdated ideological belief that these essential utilities remain a public sector monopoly--although, curiously, food and shelter do not. 

Faced with few incentives to increase or improve supplies, government utilities have invested little, resulting in serious shortages-–like the recent electricity “load shedding” blackouts in South Africa.

In contrast, where management has been de-centralised and removed from government control, the supply of water has increased. 

Guinea created a private-public water partnership in 1989 and by 2001 the number of people with access to clean water had tripled.

Economic growth, and a pragmatic policy towards water and electricity, is the surest way to help people protect themselves against the vagaries of the environment. 

Although growth does increase air pollution, history shows that as countries get richer, pollution decreases as more is invested in more efficient, and cleaner, technologies. 

Smoke and sulphur in London’s air are currently at their lowest levels for 500 years, despite massive increases in economic growth.

That growth is hampered in most poor countries by a lack of property rights, constraints on business, high tariffs and government intervention.

But this simple message is at odds with dominant debate at the Ministerial discussions in Libreville, fixated on modish environmental concerns such as climate change, described by the head of the World Health Organisation in 2007 as a “fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse.”

The effects of climate change on health are hypothetical.  What is certain is that schemes for “preventing” climate change will be very expensive. 

A new global treaty to “stabilise” the climate at today’s temperatures would cost a total of US$18-20 trillion--or 45% of the world’s current annual economic output.

Restraining economic growth with the hope of staving off hypothetical environmental threats to humanity will reduce our ability to deal with today’s real environmental health problems. 

If this agenda is forced on Africa, there will no money left to create the clean water and power networks needed fight the real killers.

Ministers must stick to the basics in Libreville and save their people from real and immediate threats.

Philip Stevens is Director of the Campaign for Fighting Diseases, London, an international development think-tank.

Contact: philip@policynetwork.net

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