When on August 14th 2013 the government of Chad suspended the China National Petroleum Company from further oil exploration in the country, (as reported by Reuters) it did so as a result of “flagrant violations of environmental standards” by the Chinese company which has been operating in the country for the past decade.
With the discovery of crude oil across Africa such environmental incidents are not isolated as previously in 2006 another Chinese company was blamed by locals for water pollution in Melut County, Upper Nile State in South Sudan according to Gurtong.net, a South Sudanese not-for-profit NGO. A similar account according to AFP in 2009, reports that many borne holes of the South Sudanese Unity State had water which bore 17 times the international recommended levels of lead and in an interview with AFP, Klaus Stieglitz from the German NGO, Sign Of Hope, noted that there was a connection between the polluted water and the illness of the villagers.
In Nigeria, Africa’s largest oil producing state, there are regular accounts of environmental pollution and these include the June 19th 2013 incident in which 2700 barrels of oil spilt from a Shell pipeline in the Niger Delta as reported in the Wall Street Journal. Although one of the largest oil spills recorded by Shell in Nigeria this year, this account is dwarfed by an offshore 40,000 barrel spill in December 20 2011 for which the National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency (NOSDRA) and the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA) are both claiming a total of 11.5 billion dollars from Shell in compensation for the damage of the environment and livelihoods.
Such incidents of environmental pollution have met international criticism from environmental NGOs like Amnesty International and Friends Of The Earth as well as rallying calls from politicians and concerned individuals to force governments into action, such as that of the Chadians on August 14th , to protect the environment. Notwithstanding, the roll-call of pollution incidents is suggestive of a continent where standards on the environment are lower than elsewhere on the planet, but a glance at international environmental laws and those the African continent show nothing could be further from the truth.
As far back as 1902 various institutions around the world have sought to protect the environment but many historical accounts of Environmental Law point to the United Nations 1972 Stockholm conference as the point when the UN became involved in protection of the Environment. Ensuing from this was a plethora of environmental conventions leading up to the next key milestone at Rio in 1991, where 10,000 participants from 176 states brought forth not only legally binding agreements like 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) but also non binding – agreements like Agenda 21 encompassing the principles of sustainable development which would become the theme of the Johannesburg World Summit on Sustainable development a decade later in 2002 – a focus on poverty and the environment – which held particular relevance to Africa.
But commitment to a better environment in Africa did not start in 2002, as four decades earlier, in 1968 the member states of the Organisation of African Unity had ratified the African Convention On the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources. And the latter day replacement of the OAU, the African Union is also keen to protect the environment as the AU’s Constitutive Acts adopted in Lome in 2000 give the Executive Council in Article 13 the power to make decisions on policy areas of common interest to member states, including environment protection. Nevertheless, a decade prior the AU’s Constitutive Acts, in the Abuja Treaty (1991) which established the African Economic Community, Articles 51, 58 and 59 carry specific environmental protection provisions and stipulations to control hazardous waste. Furthermore, Article 24 of the African Charter of Human and People’s Rights makes an environment conducive to development, a human right.
Apart from the international and national statutes on the African environment, programmes such as the Africa 10 Year Framework Programme on Sustainable Consumption and Production are alive across the continent. A United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) report on the implementation of the ten year programme, describes the projects that have been implemented in the Johannesburg Plan Of Implementation, from the 2002 summit on sustainable development, in countries like Egypt, Cote D’ Ivoire, Zambia, Kenya, Mali, Mauritius, Senegal, Ghana inter alia, where Sustainable Consumption and Production facilitating initiatives like the Marrakesh Process and the African Roundtable have been deployed. SCP pays attention to environmental focal points like demand side management of energy use, sustainable building policies, promotion of resource efficiency, sustainable tourism and waste management.
Despite such initiatives, the overriding view is one which encapsulated in a WHO report in 2011, which lists the world’s most polluted countries – with respect to air quality – to include Botswana (2), Senegal (4), Egypt (6), Nigeria (9). The report which studied air quality in 91 countries, measuring PM10 particles – particles of about 10 micrometers that can pose a health risk at levels above levels of 20 micrograms per cubic meter.
While a level of 216ug/m3 makes Botswana the highest in Africa, the report blames the country’s burgeoning mineral industry as the main reason of its poor air quality. However, the emissions from a large number of cars, and motorbikes on the roads is cited by the report for being responsible for poor air quality in Cairo for example where an estimated 300,000 motorbikes release about 150,000 tons of air pollution annually.
The Blacksmith Institute notes the underlying reasons for the world’s pollution problems include not only poor regulation and oversight of industries producing hazardous waste but also poor practices for the control of such waste in which technology or lack thereof becomes a mitigating factor. The institute also blames lack of understanding and information in local communes and the prevalence of small-scale enterprises as part of the informal economy whose emissions are largely unregulated. It is possible also to add criminality by operators who in cooperation with unscrupulous organisations permit the importation and dumping of hazardous waste materials as in the case of Trafigura, which as reported in The Guardian, July 2010, was found guilty of toxic waste dumping in Ivory Coast – causing illness in about 30000 Ivorians.
Thus it may seem through these frequent incidents and lapses, when it comes to walking the talk, African leaders are far from delivering on their commitment to the environment for 1 billion Africans. But the stakes are high, with the UN estimating that the population of Africa would hit 2 Billion by 2040, and the World Bank estimating that three quarters of the continent could achieve middle-income status by 2025, the implication being increases in consumption which would place immense pressures on energy sources and stretch the resources of cities, where the UN further estimates that 60% of Africans would live by 2050.
The challenge therefore would be to grow the economy to provide (food, water, housing, transport, waste management etc.) for the rapidly growing population and to do so sustainably. The outcome awaiting the continent should policy makers and leaders fail to include sustainability in their planning, would be incidents like the so called “Air Apocalypse” in Beijing where toxins in the air were 40x the levels deemed safe by the WHO in January 2013. Such incidents have fuelled the suggestion that China’s growth has been at the expense of the environment. This is a suggestion supported by The Economist in a report which not only cites the high pollution levels in parts of the Yangtze river but also alludes to the fact that 40% of China’s mammals are endangered and 10% of its farmlands are polluted by heavy metals. These accounts lend credence to the view that the “Grow now, clean up later” model is costly because, faced with increasing public outrage, the Chinese authorities now find themselves spending something in the order of 300 billion dollars in next five years to clean up the environment. African leaders and policy makers ambitiously seeking rapid growth like that of China, must realise this does come at a price – but it is in their power to ensure the continent pays as little as possible through sustainable development.