IF WE DO NOT ACT NOW, POLLUTION WILL KILL US ALL
9 December 2017 (EANA) – The United Nations Environment Assembly conference in Nairobi once again provided an opportunity for East Africans to think about matters of pollution, which is now becoming a major problem across the region.
Major cities are particularly affected, with rivers and streams that have been polluted by industrial waste, the air filled with pollution from vehicles and machinery, and garbage heaps that fill the streets and alleys. Dumping sites that keep coming up next to residential areas have become sources of sickness and epidemics, especially for children and people with low immunity.
Of even more serious concern is pollution by dangerous industries located in populated areas.
But pollution is not just a problem for towns. Rural areas have had to contend with their fair share of the looming disaster. The oil extraction industry that is just taking off in East Africa, for instance, has been accused of harming the environment and doing little to return exploration areas to their original, pristine condition. This promises to be part of the resource curse that is slowly creeping into the region.
In addition, a significant amount of dumping has been taking place over the years, especially in arid and semi-arid areas. In Marsabit to Kenya’s north, for instance, it is said that some toxic waste whose origin remains secret was dumped there, leading to a dramatic increase in cancer cases. Elsewhere, children have been left with breathing difficulties and many people adversely affected because of industries that pollute the air.
Yet, the challenge posed by pollution is not insurmountable. Rwanda has shown the way, and the city of Kigali’s beautiful appearance is testimony that it can be done. The country has successfully banned plastics, which are the major cause of pollution in the region and around the world. While Kenya followed suit this year, the implementation has been wanting and a lot remains to be done.
Fighting pollution requires goodwill from the highest levels of government. There are large industrial complexes that stand to lose out when decisions are made fairly and in the public interest. There are government officials who have taken kickbacks and will do anything to protect rogue investors. And there are competing interests that may seek to undercut other players.
Moreover, environmental protection must be seen in the light of our overall development strategies. Before any development takes place, the environmental impact should ideally be assessed. Often, this is not done. It need not be so.
Of course, there will be loss of jobs in some industries, such as those dealing in banned plastic products. This is inevitable, but the gains outweigh such considerations. We all deserve to live in a clean environment, so it is incumbent upon everyone to participate in making this a reality.
Rwanda’s system of communal involvement – where a day is set aside every month for everyone to clean up the environment – appears to have worked wonders. While this may not necessarily work in the same way for other countries in the region, each country must come up with equally innovative ways that are suitable for its circumstances.
An equally vexing question in recent years has been the issue of electronic waste: Old mobile phones, computers, laptops, radios, televisions sets, and other equipment and accessories. With the huge increase in the use of electronics in the region, these too pose an environmental hazard that should be examined.
But the region must also speak in one voice. When one country bans a hazardous product such as plastic bags while others in the region continue to use such products, it does not augur well for regional integration. Greater harmonization of policies and activities is therefore called for.
The destruction of the environment and pollution have already led to significant losses, including in biodiversity. The situation needs to be arrested if we are to fight the challenges of climate change and desertification. The time to begin taking concrete action is now, as any delays will likely have grave consequences for future generations.