African environment policies hampered by ‘secrecy and low priority’

Bakiika: Very few African countries have data on environmental and water quality Copyright: Flickr/ Chrissy Olson

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Africa has sufficient environmental data but storage and access are major challenges, Nigeria’s Federal Minister of Environment, Hadiza Ibrahim Mailafia, told SciDev.Net during the Eye on Earth Summit in Abu Dhabi (12-15 December). 

She said Africa was also grappling with a lack of both human and technological resources to handle the data and make it publicly accessible.

“Every country has a bureau of statistics and what is needed is a more dedicated approach, including sensitisation of the people on how to access it,” she said.

Emphasising the importance of accurate information at all levels of environmental planning, she commented, “To plan effectively you need a base and data is the scientific base on which planning can be done.”

Data must be built up from the lowest level over a period of time for aggregation and analysis at the national level, she said, but to achieve this target African governments had to invest in information communication technology and capacity building.

She also called for the sharing of environmental information among countries, regionally and at a continental level.

But Robert Bakiika, deputy executive director of the Ugandan organisation Environmental Management for Sustainable Development, said few African countries had data on their environmental resources.

South Africa and Egypt had data on environmental quality and water respectively, but very few African countries invested in information generation and most governments considered the environment to be a "soft" issue.

“The Rio+20 Summit coming up in June would be good opportunity for Africa to push for implementation of the Bali strategic plan for technology transfer but how do you do that effectively without statistics?” he asked.

Bakiika said that even when data was available it was mostly in a printed form that was difficult to navigate and put to use.This shortcoming, he said, put Africa at great disadvantage in global dialogues. "African negotiators go to global negotiations weak since they lack sufficient information achieved through scientific research," he said.

He said environment had never been a priority in Africa and there were no indicators on the quality and use of environmental information. In any case,  governments were always keen to block access to information it considered sensitive.

"It is time for African governments to reassess data availability and invest in its generation and dissemination," he said.

Kenyan environment lawyer Benson Ochieng’ said unhindered access to information on the environment for citizens was important — but only where democracy and good governance were in place.

"Ensuring access to information by the citizens as a right is one of the greatest hallmarks for furthering sustainable development," he said. In the West and some other parts of the world it was a legal requirement, but in Africa there had been mixed signals."The majority of Africa countries are yet to accept and translate principles underpinning democracy and good governance into reality for their citizens," he said.

For instance, he said, government information in Kenya was secret, an approach that was prevalent in Africa. Ochieng’ said that although there had been positive developments in Africa, with a growing clamour for constitutional government; the principle of access to information, including environmental information, had not been translated into law.

The meeting in Abu Dhabi is part of preparations for the Rio+20 conference in Brazil in June 2012, which marks the 20th anniversary of the Earth Summit, the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED).