The African continent, like other developing regions, relies mainly on agriculture, natural-resource extraction, fisheries and tourism for its economic growth. None of these activities can be carried out sustainably without effective and environmental management. Even when we look beyond agriculture, tourism, mineral wealth and fisheries, our economies depend critically on environmental stewardship.
Countries that depend on hydro-electric energy and geothermal electricity must put appropriate water management policies in place, as Africa is one of the world’s driest continents. Mitigating environmental challenges – including climate change, water availability, sustainable extraction of minerals and soil-fertility management – should be among Africa’s top priorities. There is no escaping the fact that we live off the environment. The agricultural sector alone employs over 70% of the African population. However, the downside of this dependency is that, as a continent, we are extremely vulnerable to sudden changes to our ecosystems – particularly climate change.
Take for example the tourism industry, one of the top three sources of foreign-exchange earnings on the continent. Much of the tourism in Sub-Saharan Africa is based on natural resources, including rain forests, mountains, game reserves and biodiversity in general – most of which are greatly affected by climate change. Prominent tourism landmarks such as Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania and Mount Rwenzori in Uganda have experienced drastic losses in terms of snow and glaciers. Evidence of unpredictable seasonal patterns leading to harsher dry seasons, heavy rains and floods is unmistakable.
Despite the importance of the environment to our livelihoods, its protection has long been relegated to the confines of small groups of specialists and external support. Domestic resources allocated for managing the environment are limited – based on the mistaken perspective that this does not constitute a priority development objective. Too often, national agencies in charge of the environment primarily rely on donors for funding as well as on professional solidarity. It is time for Africa to lead in mobilising technological and financial resources, and to join in global efforts to save our environment. We urgently need to change our mindset on this issue. Just as we have not given sufficient attention to the environment in our countries and continent, we seem to be the least active in global debates and actions, including various platforms such as African ministerial conferences on environment, finance, and science and technology. Whereas principles and plans are developed and agreed upon in such gatherings, there is a lack of implementation and a minimal focus on results.
In addition, there is a marked over-dependence on external support in terms of technical and financial requirements at each point in the value chain of environmental-policy development – from conception to programme implementation. We need to address this fundamental flaw in our approach and renew our commitment to ownership of these development assets.
The first joint meeting bringing together African ministers in charge of environment and finance in Kigali on 21 May sends a strong signal to our continent and beyond that we are opening a new chapter with regard to environmental protection. This should lead to development of quality advice to African governments and institutions on making the environment a priority and a key to national development planning. We need to realise that the environment presents considerable opportunities and encourage entrepreneurs to enter cutting-edge fields like renewable-energy technologies. Currently, the African private sector remains largely on the sidelines – as opposed to being part of the solution to environmental problems.
We must ensure that our continent engages more robustly in global dialogue on the environment and actively implements its commitments, including mobilisation of resources externally as well as from within. We should also explore innovative financing schemes for protecting our environment more aggressively, including global carbon markets, in which Africa remains a marginal participant. Finally, Africa should plan to be heard as a coherent, united voice at the Copenhagen Summit in December, demonstrating that Africans are equal partners with the rest of the world in working to protect our environment.
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