The road to strengthening Africa’s environment

Africa is known the world over for its beautiful natural scenery and thriving wildlife. From magnificent fresh water rivers, lakes and waterfalls to beautiful beaches, the continent has an incredible knack for supporting a glorious environment for nature to thrive. However, the continent also faces a lot of environmental challenges and different countries are approaching these challenges in a number of ways.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), nearly 1 million people in Africa die each year from air pollution. With more than 90% of air pollution deaths occurring in low to middle income countries, Africa finds itself facing a number of tough environmental challenges which must be addressed to safeguard the continent’s future.

Fighting plastic waste

With respect to the fight against plastic waste, Africa has been making gains. Countries such as Kenya, Cameroon, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Tanzania, Uganda, Ethiopia, Mauritania, and Malawi have all banned single-use plastic bags. Apart from the obvious advantage of cleaner looking cities, other positive impacts of banning plastic waste include a reduction in breeding places for malaria-carrying mosquitoes, better marine life and fewer blocked drainages causing flooding—in 2015, a  flood in Ghana which killed 150 people was attributed to plastic-blocked drains. But the achievement of the nine countries above is modest when viewed in the context of the fact that there are around 55 countries in Africa with most yet to take action on plastic waste.

Cleanliness is next to … a thriving city

Kigali, the capital city of Rwanda has been given the accolade of  the ‘cleanest city in the world’ by the head of the UN Environment Programme who commended its green initiatives at this year’s World Economic Forum. However, the same cannot be said of many African cities. This is in part due to rapid urbanisation and a lack of planning for expanding populations.

What experts at the World Bank have concluded on this point is that “while urbanization impacts the natural environment, the natural environment impacts cities. Environmental assets can enhance city resilience to disasters such as floods, and ecosystems can reduce the costs of service-delivery.” In other words, look after your environment and your city will thrive.

The environment and the law

In the Niger Delta, the oil rich region of Nigeria plagued with years of oil spills, clean-up work was recently commenced in a new collaborative initiative between Royal Dutch Shell, which operates many of the oil fields in the region and local communities. However, the work is restricted to a small part of the Delta and came after years of legal wrangling demonstrating the difficulty that communities in the region face with limited access to legal remedies.

The legal battles of the Niger Delta are not restricted to that part of Africa alone. What is certain about safeguarding Africa’s environment is that it is not possible to achieve without robust environmental laws. This is one of the issues at play in a Zambian case, Lungowe v Vedanta involving alleged pollution of Zambian rivers by a UK listed mining company. The case, also covered here, among other things demonstrates the difficulty of enforcing environmental laws in Africa and achieving justice for those whose environment is ruined by foreign mining companies.

Given that breaches of environmental laws impact marginalised people the most, Africa will only succeed in protecting its most vulnerable people by strengthening the enforcement of its environmental laws.

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