Environmental degradation threat to health, UN says

Waste from a construction site is dumped in the mountains
Copyright: Dieter Telemans/Panos

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  • Environmental degradation could lead to premature deaths in Africa, Asia and the Middle East
  • Stronger political good will to implement environment policies is key to saving people’s health
  • Scientists and policymakers interactions could help reduce Africa’s disease burden, says expert

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[NAIROBI] Environmental degradation due to factors such as urbanisation, rapid population growth, economic development and transportation, especially in the global south could have serious consequences on the health of the people, warns a UN report.
The report cautions that cities and regions in Africa, Asia and the Middle East could see millions of premature deaths by mid-century, and pollutants in freshwater systems could lead to anti-microbial resistance becoming a major cause of death by 2050 globally.

“The planet is increasingly becoming unhealthy and the global south is the most affected, especially by air pollution”

Joyeeta Gupta, Amsterdam Institute for Social Science Research of the University of Amsterdam

Scientists and experts who compiled The sixth Global Environmental Outlook report released yesterday at the ongoing UN Environment Assembly (11-15 March)  in Nairobi are calling for urgent action to reduce land degradation, air pollution, biodiversity loss, climate change mitigation, improving water management and prevention and management of disasters.
“These need robust policies that are effective and incorporating solutions such as improved resource management,” says Paul Ekins, co-chair of the report’s panel.
Ekins says that a stronger political good will to implement environment friendly policies such as use of renewable energy is key to saving the health of the people.
The report published by the UN Environment Programme asks nations to limit the potential negative sustainability drivers of population, economic development and climate change.
According to the report by 250 scientists and experts from over 70 countries globally, population growth will be highest in very poor countries and have inequities in access to education and sexual reproductive rights. Countries with low carbon footprint per capita will also experience increased population growth.
“It is therefore imperative to attend to how key population dynamics such as infertility, ageing populations and gender inequality interact and impact on environmental sustainability,” advises the report.
Almost 90 percent of urbanisation, the report states, will take place in Africa and Asia but serious environmental challenges in these areas such as flooding, access to clean water and sanitation remain unsolved risking the health of people.

However, the researchers say that rapid urbanisation, if well planned and managed could be an opportunity to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by having proper designs to avert floods and proper waste management.
Economic development activities such as trading of goods internationally, the researchers say, accounts for over 30 per cent of carbon emissions globally.
“The planet is increasingly becoming unhealthy and the global south is the most affected, especially by air pollution,” says Joyeeta Gupta, co-chair of the report and a professor of environment and development in the global south at the Amsterdam Institute for Social Science Research of the University of Amsterdam.
In an exclusive interview with SciDev.Net, Gupta says that health is a cross-cutting issue that needs action on many areas, especially on urbanisation and the rapidly growing population in Africa and Asia.
According to her solutions to food waste management and reduction should be upscaled as failure to do so could be responsible for nine percent of greenhouse gas emissions. She adds that missing environmental data in relation to health should be addressed to help in decision making.
About 100000 chemicals in use today, she says, have not been analysed in relation to impacts on the environment yet they could risk the health of people.

UN Environment’s acting executive director, Joyce Msuya, says that there is need to ensure proper waste management and access to clean energy by all. “If we invest in the health of the planet, we prioritise the health of the people,” says Msuya. She advises that sustainable development modals by countries should address key environmental issues such as climate change, clean energy, food waste, urbanisation and transport.
Babajide Alo, professor of chemistry and an environmental consultant from University of Lagos Consultancy Services says that there is need for increased interactions among scientists, researchers and policymakers so that research data can be used to inform decision making to reduce the burden of disease in Africa.
“Africa seems to be lagging behind in waste management, especially chemical waste which poses risks to the health of people,” Alo adds.

This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Sub-Saharan Africa English desk.