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OPINION - Confusing Cause and Effect


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Founder : Len Abrams
Water Policy International


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OPINION 7
January 2003

Confusing cause and effect - Poverty, Development & the Environment

In the "South" the primary cause of enviromental degradation is poverty and under-development whilst in the "North" it is unsustainable life-styles and over-development. In the south sustainable development and poverty reduction is the key to stopping degradation and restoring the environment, including the construction of well-considered water storage infrastructure. Those in the North who are anti all dams are doing the envirnment no favors.

 

I have just attended a gathering of Civil Society representatives from several countries in a major river basin in Africa where the discussion touched on the issue of the involvement of international civil society and NGOs in the affairs of the peoples of Africa. Great caution was expressed about the involvement of Northern NGOs for fear of being ‘used’ in other agendas and having others speak on their behalf. I think that this is a pity – not because Southern NGOs want to voice their own opinions, but because it indicates a growing gulf between the world views of the North and South, even in the progressive spheres of Civil Society.

A fundamental difference between the North and the South is what constitutes the primary threat to the environment. Without wishing to over-simplify the matter, the threats are more-or-less opposite. In the North the threat is over-development, over-exploitation, rampant consumerism - essentially the consequences of wealth and unsustainable lifestyles. In the South the threat is poverty fuelled by population pressure and exacerbated by under-development and a host of other factors such as trade barriers and political instability.

There are a range of factors, some natural and some of human origin, which have contributed to poverty in Africa over the years in an accumulative way and which have lead to an increasing environmental crisis. This has resulted in a cycle where environmental degradation and poverty have fed on each other year by year over decades, resulting in untold suffering. One of these factors is the natural climate variability which is far greater in the South than in the North – the seasonal variations and the variations from year to year. For the poor this represents a continuous and critical risk, in the light of which subsistence agriculture should be regarded as a wise and inevitable survival strategy. Climate variability coupled with population pressure have resulted in extensive degradation where in large parts of Ethiopia, for example, there used to be 60% natural woodland coverage, there is now only 4% - it is no coincidence that whole populations in these areas have been on continuous food aid for 15 years.

There are not many options to breaking the trap – one is to reduce the risk posed by climate variability by storing water. Comparing North America with Africa, the total water storage available per person in North America is 6150 cubic meters whilst in South Africa it is estimated at 746 cubic meters / person (the highest in Africa), Ethiopia 43 and Kenya 4 ! This means that in most of Africa people have very limited abilities to cope with climate variations – what suffers is the environment – and of course the people.

If the primary threat to the environment in the South is poverty, the primary activity required to protect the environment and ensure the maintenance of habitat and diversity is judicious and sustainable development which must include water storage and the provision of alternative fuel sources to wood fuel. The long-perceived tension between environmental protection and development is false – neither can happen without the other. [This should not be read as condoning any and all development schemes – bad development will only exacerbate the situation all round.]

So those in the North who advocate no development, who are in principle against the building of dams for example, are operating from an inadequate analysis – Pandora’s Box has already been opened - wars, poverty, corruption, dictators and population pressure have already caused more damage than development will ever cause. What is appropriate in your struggle may not be appropriate in the South, even if the ultimate objective is the same.


Opinion is published occasionally on The Water Page.  It represents the independent musings of the author alone and not the opinions or views of any other person or organisation represented on the Page.  Responses are welcome and will be published if requested.
len.abrams@waterpolicy.com

 


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