Environment in India and Africa

Aditya Bhattacharjee

“The earth, the air, the land and the water are not an inheritance from our fore-fathers but on loan from our children. So we have to hand over to them at least as it was handed over to us.” remarked one Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. It wasn’t just his vision that included a sustainable world free from dependence. Many others stressed on repaying our debts to Mother Nature. However, this vision is barely alive anymore. The environment has been affected severely. The melting of the polar ice caps has signalled a global climatic change. The precious environment is losing a battle against the very species that it nurtured. There is no doubt that most issues are grossly anthropogenic and can be linked directly to the negligence and ignorance of man. It is thus essential for developing regions like Africa and India to tailor their growth such that they can target sustainability and reduce the burden on the environment. Both must join hands and co-develop strategies to tackle present and potential environmental issues in order to create a better world.

India and Africa have both developed and sustained a long standing historical relationship. From sharing trade relations dating back to the middle of the first century through post-colonial times and the emergence of the non-aligned movement, all the way till the inaugural India-Africa Forum Summit in 2008; both India and several countries in Africa have shared a deep and long-lasting connection based not just on socio-economic and political advancements.

India was instrumental in African countries gaining their independence and assisted South Africa as it fought to rid the country of apartheid. Agriculture, mining, IT, infrastructure have all been promoted through successful Indo-African collaborations leading to further trade diversification and a stronger economic relationship. India has invested close to $30 billion in Africa and trade between both regions have doubled in the last five years, rising up to $52 billion.

This is not a surprise since Africa is flourishing. Telecommunications, banking, transportation and retail are booming. Construction and infrastructure is roaring. Private-investment inflows are surging. Labour productivity is rising. Trade has increased by a staggering 200%. Inflation has dropped, foreign-debts have declined, and total FDI had even crossed the $50 billion cap in 2010.
Although Africa has about half of the world’s gold, close to one thirds of its diamonds and billions of litres of crude oil reserves; the economy is no longer as resource dependent as before. Consumer goods have made a massive impact on the economy. More jobs, trade routes, opportunities and businesses fuelled by wiling governments. With an impending demographic dividend (perhaps even close to what was witnessed in China and India) Africa is all set to become a global economic hub.

However, Africa’s growth has been excessively rapid yet incredibly inconsistent; with the economic fragmentation something to mull over. While Aliko Dangote, the Nigerian cement king, held the coveted position of the richest black person in the world, 35% of the population survives with less than US$1 per day. The collective GDP stands at $1.6 trillion, projecting Africa among the world’s most rapidly growing economic regions; yet Africa is the world's poorest inhabited continent. Africa is a story of contrasts. So is India.

Among the world's fastest growing economic zones; the Indian economy is the world's tenth largest in terms of nominal GDP and the fourth largest in terms of purchasing power parity. Yet poverty in India is pervasive, with the nation housing about a third of the world's poor. It has the second largest population of malnourished children and over 35% of its population has no access to electricity. With a population of 1.2 billion, India was the third largest emitter of carbon dioxide in 2009 – the production of CO2 standing at 1.65 Giga Tons. 65% of India’s CO2 emissions are from heating, domestic usage and its 200GW power sector – a majority of the power being generated through inefficient coal-fired thermal plants spewing alarmingly high concentration of pollutants into the atmosphere.

Africa on the other hand has contributed lesser than any other region towards greenhouse gas emissions; however, it is also true that the continent is the most vulnerable to its consequences. With a population growing at over 2% annually and expected to touch the 1 billion mark by 2025 coupled with issues related to climate change linking it to erosion, desertification and drought; it’s safe to say that Africa’s environment is poised to take a heavy blow in the near future. With this looms a serious threat to Africa’s development, her stability and to the daily lives of its people.
This devastating effect that overburdening the environment can have has become even more apparent with the turn of the 21st Century. Global warming, climate change, deforestation, pollution, loss in biodiversity – these are real issues affecting real people. The environment holds resources for the future and is closely entwined with the region’s economy. Protecting it has become a necessity and this would require not just a Government initiative but a change in mindset and a growing consciousness.

Solid waste pollution is one such issue that can be corrected just through a change in our way of thinking. Indian cities alone generate over 100 million tonnes of solid waste in a year. Street corners, public side-walks, parks and residential areas are piled with trash. The issue here is simply negligence, refusal to recycle and poor waste management practices and governance. Reports suggest that up to 40 % of municipal and domestic wastes remain uncollected all year round. Landfills and dump yards are overflowing due to poor management and have become a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions and breeding sites for disease vectors. Even with New Delhi among other Indian cities implementing incinerator projects, ideal waste disposal is a long-way off and requires many more public-private partnership waste-to-energy projects; and above all, a greater degree of communal consciousness.

Lagos, Nigeria faces a similar task of handling waste. However their challenge is not just limited to household garbage. Thousands of typewriters, old television sets and other electronic items lie unwanted in landfills and makeshift dumps and make up Africa’s growing e-waste problem. What is alarming is the toxic nature of this form of waste which comes loaded with lead, mercury, arsenic, cobalt and other hazardous substances many of which are deemed carcinogenic. A major portion of these substances are exported into Nigeria from unknown sources and traders are reaping huge profits at the expense of environmental sanitation. Ignorance here however proves to be not so blissful after all.

Ignorance, yet again, is the major concern as chunks of indigenous clear forest are removed for firewood, agriculture or housing development projects in Ethiopia. Deforestation is a major environmental issue affecting Africa as thousands of kilometres of rain forests are chopped down every year. The rate of logging has risen by over 35% in the last decade. Such levels of deforestation have affected the Ethiopian highlands by drastically lowering rainfall, increasing soil erosion, decreasing biodiversity and reducing soil fertility. Tree cover in the Ethiopian Highlands has been extensively reduced from a pleasant 35% at the beginning of the 20th century to a shameful 14.2% on present day, with reported losses of around 1500 km of natural forest every year. In order to encourage afforestation, the Ethiopian Government has created several programs by encouraging alternative fuel usage and rigorous proscription.

The Government of Guinea has taken steps against deforestation by empowering local communities to share management responsibilities and sustainably co-manage their own natural resources, improve agricultural production and expand their trade opportunities. With such practices being incorporated through foreign patrons in Kenya, Uganda, Central Africa, Tanzania and Namibia; the situation is still hopeful. Nevertheless, the ultimate goal is a long way off. Forest governance, rate of forest degradation, logging practices and sustainable utilization practices need to be improved further. The use of wood as fuel must be curbed in both rural and urban regions of Africa since this account for 70% of the total energy use.

Similarly, in rural India, wood and agro-waste burning dominates domestic energy use and is the primary reason for the near-permanent haze observed in satellite imagery. Biomass burning alone accounts for three times as much black carbon air pollution as all other sources combined, including vehicles and industrial sources. Unrefined burning of such wastes releases large portions of NOX, SOX, Carbon Monoxide and other harmful pollutants into the atmosphere, which, the World Health Organization reports to have claimed between 300,000 to 400,000 lives in India alone.

A United Nations study reported that firewood and biomass stoves can be made more efficient in India and Africa. Instead of direct combustion, it is possible to combine animal dung and agro-wastes to generate biogas, a cleaner fuel with higher utilization efficiency. The Bhaba Atomic Research Centre in India recently developed a biodigester model which  

The activist is not the man who says the river is dirty. The activist is the man who cleans up the river
- Ross Perot

can convert semi-solid agro and animal wastes obtained from domestic households and farms into biogas through a two-stage process of aerobic and anaerobic digestion. The process is simple and the benefits are tremendous - generating high methane-content gas (between 60 and 70%) which can be further used for combined heat and power generation thus catering to domestic as well as industrial needs. Perhaps it would be best if India and Africa could combine their individual methods of adopting cheap digesters for generating biomass and empowering local communities by educating them on the principles of forestry management. Government could approach the problem by equipping rural community leaders with education and technology and provide cash benefits to households that would embrace such practices. This would vastly benefit both regions.

The shrinking African forests have further led to threatening its rich biodiversity. African forest reserves contain over seven hundred different types of tropical trees as well as several endangered species all of which are currently in danger of extinction. Insufficient actions to guard against poaching, deforestation, land devastation, and the release of toxins from industrial operations such as mining are leading to the annihilation of countless different species of plants and animals.

Environmental pollution is another increasingly major threat to Africa and India’s vast biodiversity. Unscientific mining, poor farming practices, biomass burning, poor sewage systems, inefficient oil transmission and absence of effective water resource management have all led to polluting the air and waterways, making parts of Africa inhabitable. In a continent already deprived of sufficient freshwater, water pollution is an issue that swiftly needs to be addressed. This is akin to the situation in India. Discharge of untreated sewage is one of the most important causes for surface and groundwater pollution in the subcontinent. Dumping of untreated sewage and partially cremated bodies have rendered many of India’s great rivers such as the Ganga and the Yamuna hazardous. With most rivers having alarmingly high Biochemical Oxygen Demand levels and coliform densities, it is perhaps not a surprise that over 1000 Indian children die of diarrhoeal sickness every day. Decentralized water management and an investment of over $500 million have proved to be futile. Governments from both regions need to encourage community participation in cleaning up its lakes and rivers.

Such was the case on the Kenyan shore of Lake Victoria, in Homa Bay, Africa where around a decade ago, over 2000 volunteers combated one of the world’s worst water weeds. A combination of biological control and spirited control measures reduced water hyacinth infiltration by 80 percent. Lake Victoria is one of Africa’s greatest lakes to which 30 million people remain dependent. Statistics have shown that over 500 children living in its perimeter die every week because of water and sanitation-related diseases. Water Hyacinth has since returned to the lake and remains a threat as it saps oxygen from the water and reduces marine biodiversity and profitability on fishing. Further, the weed impedes water ways and creates an abundant habitat for disease vectors. In Kerala, India, technology came to the rescue as The Kottapuram Integrated Development Society successfully incorporated a special digester to utilize water-hyacinth and produce biogas to address local domestic needs.

Implementation of age-old technology on a small scale definitely has its part to play in reversing the damage to our environment. Let’s look at the example of the state of Uttar Pradesh in India. With a population of 200 million people, U.P., as it’s commonly known, also happens to be one of the poorest and has a power shortage of close to 2,500 MW. ‘Mera Gao Power’, an organization building and operating solar-powered micro grids in the state, have allowed several rural households to experience electricity for the very first time. Villages and rural homes are considered  

I'm not sure what solutions we'll find to deal with all our environmental problems, but I'm sure of this: They will be provided by industry; they will be products of technology. Where else can they come from?

impractical to be connected to the national grid. Thus, the solution of micro grid systems operating on renewable sources of energy such as solar, wind and hydro prove to be convenient and pragmatic. Besides being eco-friendly albeit costly, such systems would prevent locals from relying on wood and biomass for their household needs. African governments could employ this successful model and provide electricity to the 500 million sub-Saharan Africans who live without it. Such models of technology sharing and implementation across both regions would not only assist both governments addressing their shortcomings but would further help solving their environmental problems as well.

Heavy involvement of several international not-for-profit organizations have marginally improved situations in both Africa and India; however, it is clear that external participation is not enough in addressing these complicated problems. This is where collaboration needs to come in. India needs to approach Africa as a partner rather than as a patron. Both need to sign a memorandum of understanding and pool in their resources in order to co-create a solution to their environmental problems. This MoU should promote bilateral cooperation between both regions in the field of environment protection and sustainable development and further promote clean and efficient energy and support environmentally sustainable and low-carbon economic growth.

The MoU must encourage joint research, development and sharing of climate-friendly technology. It must further lay emphasis on rural training in sustainable development practices since education is the key to laying the foundations of environmental damage-reversal. Be it waste treatment, deforestation, air and water pollution, poaching, energy and water mismanagement, land degradation, overpopulation and climate change – education in the form of social awareness is the answer.

With the coming of the information age and a boost in internet and mobile phone usage both in Africa and India; social media campaigns could go a long way in repaying our debt to the environment. Exchange programs, restructuring syllabi in schools and colleges and cultivating primary school teachers to encourage environment friendly practices should be made mandatory. The educated youth need to be encouraged to implement solutions by partaking in well-orchestrated programs including site visits to affected areas.

Since the challenges need to be addressed at the micro environment all the way through to the macro environment of resource exploitation; young entrepreneurs and industrial tycoons from both regions must also be brought under this MoU to join hands and implement green technologies. Concentrated solar power, geothermal energy, micro-hydro systems and renewables in general are definitely the answer to reducing our dependency on natural resources while simultaneously protecting the environment.

Government initiatives and schemes such as tax benefits for industries implementing scientific mining, energy and water conservation; and lower tariffs for sections of the population relying on LED lighting, PV cells and biofuels should feature in this MoU. The Government must extend its responsibility in this area and organize training modules and community programs. A Joint Working Group must be setup to coordinate between the nodal bodies in both India and Africa and determine cost-sharing, systematize the activities and recommend policy changes.

In conclusion, it is clear that Africa and India share similar problems linked to the environment. Facing and addressing these issues constitute one of the key challenges to the people of Africa and India in the 21st century. With swift urbanisation and rapid growth in population in both regions, it is imperative that we deepen our engagement with the specific goal of co-creating a safe environment for both regions. It will require more resources — human, technical and financial — and swift implementation and, above all, a change in mindset. It is no longer about ‘helping’ Africans through value-addition, employment creation and skill development. It is about pooling resources and forging a partnership. Remember that both India and Africa have weathered the storm of colonization, gained freedom from a repressive monarchical system, and led its path towards economic liberation and successive growth and development; and are facing similar challenges in protecting its prized environment. Both are in a delicate position – stagnated between a booming self-sufficient economy and a mere potential to achieve the same. It is at this critical juncture that we determine what is to guide our development over the next century and it is now that we focus on a unified solution to bringing about sustainability and protecting our rich, bio diverse and once plentiful environment. This memorandum of understanding is thus a necessary approach for both regions to combat matters related to environmental degradation. Nelson Mandela once said that “It always seems impossible until it is done” and it is with that mindset we must believe that India and Africa can compete with other sections of the world and successfully collaborate and co-create the future on environmental issues; reversing the damage that has affected both regions and their respective ecosystems. This would not only work as a message to our children and our children’s children but would serve as a beacon of intent, resolution and hope to the entire world.

Jai Hind and Oorwinning te Afrika.

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