African Environment Outlook 3 - Our Environment, Our Health

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Third Africa Environment Outlook Addresses Key Environmental Risks for Human Health and Draws Pathways for Sustainable Future

Report Shows Good Policies for Addressing Environmental Challenges Affecting Human Health, But Weak Implementation

Nairobi, 21 February 2012 - Africa's leaders should put implementing environment and health issues at the top of their national and continent-wide policies if growing challenges such as air pollution, vector-borne diseases and chemical exposure are to be addressed, according to a new report compiled by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) released today.

African Environment Outlook-3 (AEO-3), commissioned by the African Ministerial Conference on the Environment (AMCEN), places special focus on links between environment and health, pointing to the statistic that environmental risks contribute 28 per cent of Africa's disease burden. Diarrhoea, respiratory infections and malaria account for 60 per cent of known environmental health impacts in Africa.

In particular, particulate matter - the air pollutant with greatest impact on human health - is of great concern in poor rural areas, where little access to cleaner stoves and fuels causes significant health impacts through indoor pollution. Air pollution in Africa can be 10 to 30 times higher than World Health Organization limits

Other issues highlighted that have a major impact include the degradation of health-promoting goods and services such as food and medicinal plants made possible by land and marine biodiversity. For example, 80 per cent of Africa's rural population depends on traditional medicines harvested from nature.

The report also spotlights a lack of capacity to deal with the growing effects of climate change; inadequate water, sanitation and hygiene - in 2010, only 60 per cent of the sub-Saharan Africa population had access to safe water; and poor waste disposal practices.

The AEO-3 Summary for Policy Makers is intended to provide information that can assist AMCEN member countries strengthen capacity for policy making and advocacy on national, regional and global levels.

"Africa's population is growing at the fastest rate in the world and its economy is expanding at a commensurate rate, yet not enough focus has been placed on the role environmental concerns play in ensuring the wellbeing of this expanding, dynamic continent's citizens," said UNEP Executive Director and UN Under-Secretary General Achim Steiner.

"Africa is moving into a new phase that could see the continent become a major player in the transition to a global inclusive Green Economy, but to do that it needs a healthy population with guaranteed access to well-managed natural resources," he added. "AEO-3 gives policy makers a clear pathway to a sustainable and healthy future by focusing on the areas that need urgent attention, showing how to remove barriers to policy implementation, and highlighting new policies."

The report highlights emerging issues and assesses trends related to environmental change and the consequences for human health in the region, and proposes new policy directions for enabling transformative changes for a sustainable future.

In addition, the report found that many good policies to address environmental change already exist but are hampered by weak implementation. However, the AEO-3 assessment points to a number of actions, which if adequately taken can make promising policies work effectively.

"As this report highlights, African governments are all too aware of the challenges facing the continent in terms of environmental impacts on human health. There are significant on-going efforts to combat these challenges, including putting in place many relevant policies," said H.E. Terezya Huvisa, Minister of State - Environment of the United Republic of Tanzania and President of AMCEN.

"However, these policies must be strongly implemented to have an impact, and enforcement mechanisms should be put in place and strengthened to reduce the negative consequences," she added. "If the recommendations in AEO-3 are followed, our citizens can look forward to healthier, and ultimately more productive, lives."

Key Messages and Policy Recommendations

Specifically, the report seeks to deliver key messages and policy recommendations, including:

  • Environmental and health issues deserve priority consideration in national development.
  • Indoor and outdoor air pollution, unhygienic or unsafe food, inadequate waste disposal, absent or unsafe vector control and exposure to chemicals are key environmental health hazards in most African countries.
  • Effective reduction of indoor air pollution requires rethinking national electrification programmes and accelerating access to improved technologies and alternative sources of cleaner energy.
  • Measures such as Community Based Natural Resources Management and Payment for Ecosystem Services should be scaled-up to conserve biodiversity, which provides services such as food and medicinal plants and thus promotes human health.
  • Chemicals bring benefits in many sectors, but if improperly handled can result in environmental pollution and serious risks to human health. Recommended policy directions include strengthening the knowledge and evidence base of health risks; accelerating domestication and implementation of the Basel, Stockholm and Bamako Conventions; and including issues relating to e-waste in national legislation.
  • Climate change and variability impact human health because of Africa's underdeveloped capacity to cope with the negative impacts. Policy options include integrating climate-related scientific findings into decision making; building adaptive capacity; and strengthening early warning systems, preparedness and response.
  • Coastal and marine resources contribute to human health and need to be conserved and used sustainably. In addition to scaling up Integrated Coastal Zone Management, there is need for effective surveillance in order to protect the coastal and marine environment from degradation and pollution.
  • Access to safe water and adequate sanitation is vital to human health and therefore requires action to improve infrastructure; reduce pollution of available water sources; and address poor hygiene.
  • Assessing the suitability of land-use changes, regulating large-scale land acquisition, and promoting technologies that enhance land productivity and more-efficient water use can promote sustainable land management and boost food and nutrition security.
  • Adequate adaptation to domestic and global uncertainties, which affect human health, can benefit from scenario analyses that emphasize the various ways in which environmental management may impact human health well into the future and make it possible to make flexible long-term plans.
  • Options to improve weak implementation of existing policies include: adequate data and information systems; stakeholder engagement; institutional mechanisms to ensure alignment and collaboration; capacity development of all stakeholders; and clear implementation roadmaps with realistic targets and funding mechanism.

The State of the Environment

The AEO-3 built the above messages and recommendations from the latest data available on air quality, biodiversity, chemicals and waste, climate change, freshwater and sanitation and land. This existing data on linkages between health and the environment in Africa needs to be brought up to date.

The data available includes the following facts and figures:

Air quality

The low combustion efficiency of solid fuels used for cooking and heating in rural Africa and poor ventilation often results in concentrations of indoor air pollution 10-30 times over World Health Organization limits.

Outdoor air pollution is estimated to kill 800,000 people globally each year, mainly in urban areas; 40,000 of these deaths occur in Africa.

In Angola, 6.9 per cent of the national disease burden is attributable to solid fuel use; in Malawi, the figure is 5.2 per cent.


Africa's biological diversity supports human health as a major source of food, medicines and ecosystem services: 80 per cent of Africa's rural population depends on traditional medicine. In Zimbabwe, 50 species of mushrooms, 25 species of fruit and 50 species of leafy vegetables are harvested from the wild.

Uncontrolled exploitation and fragmentation of natural habitats threaten biodiversity of medicinal and food security value. Over-harvesting and climate change also contribute to biodiversity degradation and imbalances in predator-prey relationships that may create conditions for disease outbreak.

Changes or disturbance in habitats characterized by damming, destruction of coral reefs through dynamite fishing, and the conversion of natural forests and grasslands into arable agriculture also create conditions that may favour disease vectors.

Chemicals and Waste

Health-related risks in Africa come from agrochemicals, persistent organic pollutants (POPs), chemical stockpiles, e-Waste and petroleum waste.

In Ivory Coast, the National Centre for Agronomical Research in Abidjan estimates that 65 per cent of the illnesses suffered by market gardeners, cotton growers, mango producers and consumers are due to pesticides.

The Ogoni community in the Niger Delta in Nigeria is exposed to petroleum hydrocarbons in outdoor air and drinking water, sometimes at elevated concentrations. Furthermore, community members at Nisisioken Ogale are drinking water from wells that are contaminated with benzene, a known carcinogen, at levels over 900 times above WHO limits.

Climate change

The Fourth Assessment of the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change found that Africa is warming faster than the global average, and temperature could increase by as much as 3 to 4°C average this century. This makes climate change a major challenge for health and economy in Africa as climate-sensitive diseases are likely to spread with warming. These include Rift Valley Fever, which affects both people and livestock; cholera, associated with floods; Meningitis, associated with prolonged warming; and malaria, which warming has enabled the emergence of in hitherto unexposed areas such as the highlands of Kenya, Rwanda and Tanzania. The effects of warming in Africa are also likely to translate into reductions in crop yields and livestock productivity, shortages of drinking water, and displacement of people in some areas.

Freshwater and sanitation

Human-induced pollution in Africa comes from untreated municipal wastewater effluents, seepage to natural wells and springs from latrines, nitrate pollution of groundwater by fertilizers, cadmium-rich water releases from phosphates mines, and eutrophication of dam reservoirs as a result of organic pollution.

The majority of Africa's population still lacks safe drinking water, with sub-Saharan Africa accounting for about a third or 330 million of the 884 million people who have no access worldwide.

Although by 2010 the actual number of people using improved drinking water sources had increased by 11 per cent since 1990, only 60 per cent of the sub-Saharan Africa population had access to safe water.

Northern Africa is the only sub-region that has surpassed the Millennium Development Goal sanitation targets, with access coverage increasing from 72 per cent in 1990 to 89 per cent in 2008.

Water scarcity is projected to increase from 47 per cent in 2000 to 65 per cent in 2025.


By sustainably using land, people can enhance their health through increased access to the various ecosystem services, yet Africa suffers considerable land degradation, with severe consequences for agricultural production, nutrition and human health.

In a period covering over 50 years from 1950, soils in about 0.5 million square kilometres were degraded. Over 60 per cent of the population in Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Lesotho and Mali live on degraded land.

Changes in land use can also change the ecology of human diseases, thereby making people more vulnerable to infections. Indirect health effects of land degradation include the spread of infectious diseases as populations migrate.

Africa is estimated to contribute 70 per cent of the global land leased or purchased to produce agricultural crops for food and for bio-fuels, with adverse impacts on local food security and livelihoods.

Notes to Editors

The Africa Environment Outlook (AEO) is a tool of the African Ministerial Conference on the Environment (AMCEN) for monitoring environmental management in Africa. It provides a framework for environmental reporting at the national and sub-regional levels. Its ultimate aim is to enable AMCEN's member countries to institute environmental management policies and programmes for the sustainable future of the continent. The AMCEN Secretariat partners with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), through its Regional Office for Africa (ROA) and the Division of Early Warning and Assessment (DEWA), in producing the AEO report.

The full report can be accessed here:

For more information contact:

Nick Nuttall, UNEP Director of Communications and Spokesperson +254 733 632 755, +41 795965737,

Angele Luh, UNEP Regional Information Officer +254 20 762 4292; +254 731 666 140;

UNEP Newsdesk on +254 725 939 620,