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
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
In attendance were hundreds of delegates, including health
ministers, environment ministers, high-level experts, academics,
policymakers and representatives from nongovernmental
"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
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
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
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.
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
* 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
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
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
More information about the conference and about the Health and
Environmental Linkages Initiative is available at the UNEP and
WHO Web sites.