Africa’s five most pressing environmental issues and possible solutions to addressing them
Mar 28 2023
African countries face a wide array of environmental problems that pose a major threat to people in the region. The tragic dilemma is that although Africa is the continent that contributes the least to the earth’s environmental change, it is the most vulnerable to its impact. The environmental issues facing Africa are not only a serious threat to the health of its citizens but to its economy and social cohesion. “It’s heart-breaking to see the environmental health in Africa deteriorating in both rural & urban settings, leading to poverty & stunting development.”
The continent’s biggest environmental challenges are water pollution, air pollution, deforestation caused by human activities, biodiversity loss and oil spills.
The African populace is confronted with a significant danger due to polluted water sources. In Africa, 115 people die every hour due to preventable illnesses that are caused by lack of hygiene, inadequate sanitation, and contaminated water as estimated, this is according to the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs. Unfortunately, there are innumerable African communities without access to clean, safe water for drinking, cooking, and personal hygiene. Additionally, freshwater sources are contaminated by viruses, germs, parasites, and pollutants, creating a “water scarcity.” Tropical diseases including cholera, typhoid fever, dysentery, and diarrhoea ailments can spread because of a lack of water. Trachoma, an eye infection that can cause blindness, the plague, and typhus are some frequent illnesses.
In order to have access to potable water, households have to traverse extremely lengthy distances. Frequently, women and young girls are assigned the task of bearing large vessels of water back to their domiciles. They often have to forsake the opportunity to further their education by departing school prematurely in order to sustain their family. Encompassing water-collecting voyages can be hazardous and can potentially cause physical or sexual injury to girls and women.
In most cases, families must walk extremely long distances to access clean drinking water. Carrying large buckets of water back to their houses is a chore that frequently falls on the family’s female members and young girls. They often have to leave school early, missing out on the chance to further their education to support their family. These water-collecting expeditions are risky and can potentially harm girls and women physically or sexually.
Also, it is predicted that by 2025 close to 230 million Africans will be facing water scarcity, and up to 460 million will be living in water-stressed areas as Africa’s population continues to grow and climate change continues to rob the continent of the finite resource.
Deforestation is one of the primary causes of disruption to the global ecological equilibrium, not just in Africa. It is acknowledged that the destruction of forests for timber and expanding agricultural land contributes to several detrimental environmental circumstances, such as soil erosion, climate change and reduced precipitation. Throughout Africa, deforestation has occurred for a variety of motives, including the cultivation of cocoa, one of the continent’s most lucrative crops. Substantial portions of land in Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Nigeria and Cameroon, four African countries, are utilised to cultivate approximately three-quarters of the world’s cocoa.
When the forest is destroyed, the communities that inhabit the area will no longer be safeguarded from floods due to the loss of their existing inundation-prevention system. Forests function as sponges, absorbing rainfall, stabilising soils, and discharging water continuously. As deforestation in Africa increases, the soil structure alters, and the soil particles that were once firmly held are disturbed due to the loss of ground cover caused by deforestation, heavy rainfall results in sudden flooding. When forest cover is removed, drainage enters streams rapidly, raising river levels and increasing the susceptibility of villages, cities, and agricultural lands to flooding, particularly during the rainy season.
Oil spills are a common occurrence these days- taking place in rivers, bays, and oceans due to accidents involving tankers, barges, pipelines, refineries, drilling rigs, storage facilities, and even recreational boats and marinas. Depending on the circumstances, oil spills can be very harmful to marine birds, mammals, and also can harm fish and shellfish. Most oils float on the oceans’ saltwater or freshwater from rivers and lakes. Africa’s top oil-producing country Nigeria, where over 300 million litres of crude oil are produced daily and are thought to be the source of 70% of the country’s earnings, has experienced severe environmental degradation. Since petroleum was discovered in Nigeria more than 60 years ago, uncontrolled spills have been a common occurrence in the oil industry, the country’s primary source of GDP.
An estimated 240,000 barrels of crude oil are spilled in the Niger Delta each year, poisoning agriculture, waterways, and the atmosphere with hazardous chemicals. Over 40 million litres of crude oil are spilled in the Niger Delta each year, killing people and harming the ecosystem there in the process. Between 1976 and 2014, the oil-rich region experienced more than 12,000 oil spill occurrences, according to a 2018 report by the Journal of Health and Pollution. More than half of them were a result of tanker accidents and pipeline degradation.
A study connecting environmental pollution to infant and child mortality rates in the Niger Delta revealed that oil spills within a 10-kilometre radius of a mother’s residence increased neonatal mortality rates and negatively impacted the health of the mother’s living progeny. Oil companies have been accused of not fulfilling their legal duty to remediate spills within the 24-hour time frame stipulated by Nigerian legislation. Amnesty International held Shell and Eni – the two most prominent companies in the Niger Delta – accountable for their lack of due care regarding local oil spillages. The campaign group argued that the environmental deterioration in the Niger Delta had become more severe due to the corporations’ “inefficient reaction” to the oil spills. Despite this assertion, both corporations have subsequently refuted it.
Nearly all the African continent faces severe health impacts caused by air pollution, with several countries experiencing some of the highest levels of air pollution in the world according to a 2022 report by the Institute, air pollution in africa, is the second leading risk factor for death across Africa, which is home to five of the top ten most heavily polluted countries worldwide. High mortality rates are brought on by the expansion of the oil and gas industry in Nigeria and South Africa, while deaths in West and Central Africa are mainly associated with fire emissions. According to a UNICEF research, outdoor air pollution deaths has increased by 60% across Africa.
Governments and private sector organisations who want to improve power connectivity in rural or sparsely inhabited areas have difficulties since many rural locations in Africa are isolated, a factor that inevitably raises the cost of capital infrastructure for energy distribution. Governments are investing in solar and wind power facilities to ensure that the people in these areas have access to clean and affordable energy, thereby minimising the health hazards and diseases brought on by long-term exposure to burning wood fuel, coal, or using kerosene lights and stoves.
Africa has made significant strides in the growth of its solar energy industry in recent years, with the continent seeing an increase of over 1.8W in new solar installations, primarily led by Egypt, South Africa, Kenya, Namibia, and Ghana. In order to simultaneously speed up energy access and support sustainable economic growth, more investment is needed in other to switch away from conventional hydropower and thermal facilities to renewable alternatives.
To do more, governments must not only massively increase funding for green innovation to bring down the costs of low-carbon energy sources, but they also need to adopt a range of other policies that address each of the other market failures.
The biodiversity of Africa is crucial to the world. The continent is home to 22% of the world’s mammalian species, nearly a fifth of avian species, and one-sixth of all plant species. Of the 36 biodiversity hotspots worldwide, eight are found in the continent. They include numerous endemic species and are the richest and most biologically endangered regions globally.
A number of factors, including population growth, extensive farming techniques, fast urbanisation, infrastructural development, and illegal trafficking, are causing the continent to see an unprecedented decline in biodiversity. it is estimated that the overuse and degradation of ecosystems will cause the extinction of 20-30% of lake species by the end of the century, translating to the loss of 50-60% of African bird and mammal species, as well as wildlife and fisheries
To cope with these challenges, a regional strategy to combat poaching and the illegal trade and transportation of wildlife and wildlife products has been developed by member nations of the EAC, including Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Burundi, South Sudan, and Rwanda, and is currently being implemented at both the regional and national levels. The approach is built on six main pillars: a stronger policy framework, improved law enforcement capabilities, research and development, community engagement, and encouragement of regional and worldwide cooperation.
“Regardless of the fact that each African nation has its own unique environmental policies, the direction of the continent’s overall climate plan is not one that is viable”
Thus to reduce water and air pollution, African government needs to explore innovative environmental problem-solving strategies. Since governments are at the helm of affairs, they can pass laws to protect public health and create regulations to enforce them.
There needs to be more accountability for companies that pollute heavily. African governments and individuals must pressure high-polluting industries to demand change. Secondly, more funding is required to promote sustainable practices, such as creating more resilient communities and climate-proofing cities to help Africans prepare for and respond to the inevitable impacts of climate change