31 May 2002

Zimbabwe: Poverty Straining Environment

AT 66 years old, Ambuya Berita Chanakira from Epworth should be retired and enjoying a pension at some old people's home.

But that life is still a fairy tale and a luxury least afforded by most of the people in the Third World where daily chores include warding off the poverty scourge.

To expect people who daily endure the ravages of dire poverty, hunger, disease, war and natural disasters such as droughts, floods and earthquakes for many decades to come to understand the advantages of sustainable development in a globalising environment is but a tall order.

For Ambuya Chanakira, constant hard work in her small vegetable garden since her husband's death in 1986 has helped her escape the grinding penury that is the order of day for the majority of people in Epworth, a run down settlement that rapidly sprouted after 1980 into a major urban residential area 10km outside Harare.

"This is a very poor community, but I have never expected someone to give me food," said Ambuya Chanakira, taking a break from adding fertiliser to the soil in her vegetable garden along a small stream running through the settlement.

"I have to struggle everyday to fend for myself."

While Ambuya Chanakira's efforts to feed herself have had little effect on the environment, the struggle for survival for many Zimbabweans and others elsewhere on the globe, where poverty reins supreme, has, however, resulted in environment degradation to a point that economic and physical survival is being seriously threatened.

"Since the 1970s the environment and key natural resources in most African countries have been increasingly threatened by escalating and unsustainable pressures from fast growing populations and cities as well as expanding agricultural and industrial activities," says the Global Environment Outlook 2000, a report by the United Nations Environment Agency, the United Nations Environment Programme.

The UNEP reports that Africa is the only continent where poverty is expected to rise during the next 100 years.

This prediction comes at a time when the continent's 500 million hectares of land have been affected by soil degradation; the number of undernourished people has doubled to over 200 million since the 1960s; 50 million hectares of tropical forest have disappeared since 1980; and water scarcity has continued to increase over the years.

The UNEP further points out that Africa is also still suffering from economic development policies and patterns, imported by colonial authorities, that "largely neglected the adverse impacts on the poor majority of people and on the environment".

Says the UNEP: "On achieving independence during and after the 1960s, African governments inherited and maintained centralised economic and sectoral institutions and narrowly-focused growth policies, usually with the encouragement and support of international aid agencies.

"These national and international 'development' policies, in combination with rapid population growth and increased poverty, had progressively adverse impacts on the state of the environment and natural resource base."

Epworth, a former property of the United Methodist Church-run Mission School but invaded by desperate home-seekers from Harare when Zimbabwe became independent in 1980, is a perfect example of the real dilemmas and obstacles many developing countries are facing to achieve sustainable levels.

Recognised as an urban settlement after a Local Government Board was appointed to run the area in 1986, Epworth's population has rapidly increased over the years to more than 45 000 today.

Despite the Government's pledge since the mid-1980s to develop the area by installing proper sewerage and water systems, constructing roads and electrifying houses, Epworth has remained an eyesore as more home-seekers continue to invade the settlement consequently throwing planners off course.

The majority of people are unemployed, crime and environmental degradation are rampant as people devise means of survival.

Sand and wood poachers have wrecked havoc in the surrounding farms, stealing sand to construct their homes and wood for domestic fuel after the cost of paraffin rose to unaffordable levels.

The area is now so densely populated that attempts to properly settle the people would actually involve removing everyone and flattening much of the settlement since the present set up has no provision for roads, sewers and electricity power lines.

A severe drought that has swept across most of Southern Africa has also exacerbated the plight of the people in Epworth after their small crop fields wilted.

By merely multiplying the plight of the people in Epworth by Zimbabwe's 15 major urban areas where similar problems occur the country's economic and environmental problems become a complex jig-saw puzzle.

While blaming corrupt governments for the Third World's economic and environmental crises, the International Monitory Fund and World Bank-initiated reforms have so far managed to bring about little relief either.

The solutions to the poverty trap, that have ironically ignored the issue of debt relief, have completely failed to reverse the environmental catastrophe facing poor nations.

The United Nations hopes that a World Summit on Sustainable Development, due to start in Johannesburg, South Africa, on 26 August this year, will produce "concrete results" on providing clean water and sanitation and energy to developing countries, and health, agriculture and biodiversity issues.

The UN conference is a follow-up to the 1992 "Earth Summit" held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, that put, for the first time, environmental issues on the global political agenda.

"The planet is at a crucial crossroads with the choices made today critical for the forests, oceans, rivers, mountains, wildlife and other life support systems upon which current and future generations depend," the latest UNEP global report says.

It is, therefore, crucial that world leaders attending the Johannesburg meeting find the political courage and the innovative financing needed to implement the hundreds of declarations, agreements, guidelines and legally-binding treaties made so far, says the UNEP Executive Director Klaus Toepfer.

A World Bank official responsible for environmental issues, Mr Ian Johnson, says: "I think one of the themes that will emerge at a political level in Johannesburg is how to make globalisation work for poor countries.

"There's quite a lot of evidence to suggest that public opinion is concerned about many of the issues that will be raised at the Johannesburg summit and politicians have yet to grasp how important it is to many people."

Balancing these issues and setting priorities right at the global level to achieve sustainable development in a world where the number of poor people continues to rise is definitely going to be a difficult task for the world leaders for some time to come.

For a better future to be realised in Africa, the UNEP has, for instance, concluded that: "The key challenge is to reduce poverty.

"New approaches that put the poor at the top of the environment and development agenda could tap and release the latent energy and talents of Africans to bring about development that is economically, socially, environmentally and politically sustainable."

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