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September 23, 2018

We owe ourselves a pollution-free planet

President Uhuru Kenyatta addressing delegates at the official opening of the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) High- Level Segment at the United Nation Complex, Gigiri
President Uhuru Kenyatta addressing delegates at the official opening of the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) High- Level Segment at the United Nation Complex, Gigiri

In the age we live in, now called the Anthropocene, mankind’s impact on our fragile planet has been as consequential as natural catastrophes — volcanoes, hurricanes and even tsunamis. We are now the most virulent biological agent on the universe.

For far too long we have been led to believe that economic growth and prosperity are only attainable through rapacious harvesting and plunder of the planet’s resources. We have fouled the air and damaged our soils. Our forests have been decimated. Our oceans are trawled relentlessly for food and treasure. Thanks to our energy systems, the planet is warming up inexorably.

It might seem like we have a suicide pact as a species. We are all hurtling down the path of irreversible disaster. Committed action to forestall dangerous global warming is not forthcoming. Somehow we are convinced that reining in our fossil fuel and carbon addiction will leave us poorer. Nothing could be more delusional. Somehow we believe killing ourselves into prosperity is cool.

Here is why. According to the World Health Organization, 23 per cent of all deaths —estimated at 12.6 million people in 2012 — are due to environmental causes. Children in low- and middle-income countries bear the biggest burden of environment-related morbidity and mortality. This is certainly not a great outcome in the pursuit of growth and prosperity.

The report, ‘Towards a Pollution-Free Planet’, submitted by the executive director of Unep at the just-concluded United Nations Environment Assembly, is depressing. According to the report, 4.3 million people die annually owing to indoor air pollution.

About three billion people, that includes all Kenyans, do not have access to controlled waste disposal facilities. Lower respiratory infections owing to household or ambient air pollution causes 52 million years of life lost or lived with disability annually.

What is most disconcerting is that many of the harmful effects of chemical pollutants are not fully known; these include the hormonal disruptors and neurological impacts related to human development as well as the effects on biodiversity and ecosystem level processes.

Deforestation and poor land use management, as well as domestic and industrial waste, are killing inland lakes and rivers in Africa. For instance, Lake Victoria is eutrophic, fertile and choking with invasive plant species.

As a consequence of dramatic changes in water quality and the introduction of the Nile perch, the lake’s native fish species are at risk of extinction.

The United Nations Environment Assembly, which just ended here in Nairobi, passed 13 non-binding resolutions. Among these were to protect water-based ecosystems from pollution, remove poisonous lead from paint and batteries, prevent and reduce air pollution and address marine litter and microplatics.

According to a recent report by the Business and Sustainable Development Commission, combating pollution makes business sense. Business opportunities arising from reducing waste, recovery and recycling of materials could be worth $12 trillion globally.

A cleaner and healthier planet is good for the business bottom-line, for people and for the planet. We must find the courage to act now and save ourselves.

Alex O. Awiti is the director of the East Africa Institute at Aga Khan University

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