Resource Logo
USIS Washington File

African Officials Work to Reduce Environmental Health Threats: Sign pact aimed at saving lives of millions from changing environment


USIS Washington File - September 5, 2008

Washington - African health and environment ministers gathered for the first time August 26-29 in Libreville, Gabon, to build a strategic alliance aimed at helping their nations reduce environmental threats to human health and well-being.

Diseases caused by environmental change are responsible for many deaths in Africa. In 2002 alone, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), unsafe water, pollution, poor sanitation, inadequate waste disposal, insufficient vector (disease-carrying organism) control and exposure to chemicals claimed about 2.4 million lives.

To address the problem, WHO and the U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP) organized the Inter-Ministerial Conference on Health and Environment in Africa. The government of Gabon hosted the four-day meeting.

In attendance were hundreds of delegates, including health ministers, environment ministers, high-level experts, academics, policymakers and representatives from nongovernmental organizations.

"For too long," Mounkaila Goumandakoye, UNEP's regional director for Africa, said in a statement, "both health and environment have sought to cope with the downstream consequences of policies regarding environment, health and economic development that have been designed in parallel, not in concert." HEALTH AND ENVIRONMENT After deliberating on a range of issues, the delegates agreed the root causes of global environmental degradation lie in pervasive poverty, unsustainable production and consumption patterns, unequal distribution of wealth and other social and economic problems.

The result is a region where millions of people suffer from diseases like malaria; tuberculosis; cholera; typhoid; worm diseases like dracunculiasis, helminthiasis and schistosomiasis; asthma; bronchitis; and heart diseases.

Links among development, environment and health are more pronounced in Africa than on any other continent because of its relatively fragile ecosystems and high numbers of locally prevalent infectious diseases that are strongly linked to the environment.

African nations face development challenges such as weak health systems, lack of access to safe drinking water and safe hygiene and sanitation, poorly designed irrigation and water systems, inadequate housing and poor waste disposal and water storage.

New and emerging issues include the health effects from climate change, accelerated urbanization and water and air pollution.

"While our knowledge has been increasing about how ecosystems and species and the quality of the environment relate to human health, Angela Cropper, UNEP's deputy executive director, said in a statement, "there is a lag in concerted policy and action to address this relationship." Bringing together ministers of environment and health in this conference, she added, "is an opportunity to lay the basis for doing so in and on behalf of the continent of Africa." From an environmental perspective, Africa's land is under pressure from a growing population, desertification, water stress, declining biodiversity, deforestation, increasing dust storms, natural disasters like drought and floods, and chemicals hazards.

The African continent is rich in natural resources and has a potentially strong human resource base to sustain flourishing economies, but the resource is undermined by poor health and mismanagement of the continent's natural wealth.

U.S. government assistance to 47 countries in Africa is directed to helping African governments, institutions and African-based organizations incorporate good governance principles and innovative approaches to health, education, economic growth, agriculture and environment programs.

LIBREVILLE DECLARATION On the last day of the meeting, delegates adopted the Libreville Declaration, an agreement that commits governments to implementing measures that will stimulate the policy, institutional and investment changes needed to optimize interactions among health, environment and other sectors.

The declaration urges member states, among other things, to: * Update national, subregional and regional frameworks to address more effectively the links between health and environment by integrating the links into policies, strategies and national development plans; * Integrate agreed-on objectives in health and environment into national poverty-reduction strategies; * Build national and regional capacities to address the links between environment and health by establishing and strengthening health and environment institutions; and * Implement priority intersectoral (government, business, civil society) programs at all levels in health and environment to speed up achievement of the Millennium Development Goals. The goals include halving extreme poverty, reducing child mortality rates, fighting disease epidemics such as HIV/AIDS and creating a global partnership for development by 2015.

To support the actions outlined in the declaration, WHO and UNEP have offered the use of their jointly developed Health and Environmental Linkages Initiative, a global effort to help developing-country policymakers deal with environmental threats to health.

The initiative uses scientific, economic and decision-making tools in an integrated way to identify development strategies and management options that will benefit health, environment and sustainable development.

For example, in Jordan, which has one of the world's lowest levels of water resource availability per capita, the initiative has brought together representatives from the ministries of planning, water, agriculture, environment and health; science and research institutions; consumer/producer associations; and bilateral/international agencies such as the U.S. Agency for International Development and the U.N. Development Programme.

A core research group is preparing a strategic environmental assessment of existing and planned water efficiency policies and various alternatives. At the end of the assessment process, recommendations will be presented to an advisory group and policymakers and at a WHO/UNEP cosponsored regional workshop hosted by Jordan and involving other countries in the eastern Mediterranean region.

More information about the conference and about the Health and Environmental Linkages Initiative is available at the UNEP and WHO Web sites.


Copyright © 2008 -USIS Washington File, Publisher. All rights reserved to US Information Agency. Reproduction of this article (other than one copy for personal reference) must be cleared through the USIA. US Information Agency

Information in this article was accurate in September 5, 2008. The state of the art may have changed since the publication date. This material is designed to support, not replace, the relationship that exists between you and your doctor. Always discuss treatment options with a doctor who specializes in treating HIV.