AFRICA ENVIRONMENT OUTLOOK
Past, present and future perspectives

CHAPTER 3

HUMAN VULNERABILITY TO ENVIRONMENTAL CHANGE

INTRODUCTION

Three decades ago, in 1972, the international community adopted the Stockholm Declaration, following the Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment. Principle 1 of the Declaration highlighted a healthy environment as a fundamental human right, explicitly stating: ‘Man [sic] has the fundamental right to freedom, equality and adequate conditions of life in an environment of a quality that permits a life of dignity and well-being, and he bears a solemn responsibility to protect and improve the environment for present and future generations...’ Since then, the Organization of African Unity (OAU) African Charter on Human and People’s Rights, and dozens of relatively new African national constitutions, have enshrined a healthy environment as a fundamental human right.

Of particular interest to Africa in the Stockholm Declaration was the condemnation in Principle 1 of apartheid, racial segregation, discrimination, colonial and other forms of oppression, and foreign domination. While these socio-political issues have virtually been eliminated in the region, the environmental objectives have been compromised in many ways.

Over the past 30 years, the environment in Africa has continued to deteriorate, resulting in environmental change which is making more and more people in the region vulnerable due to increased risk and inadequate coping capability. Such deterioration has been acknowledged at various fora, and the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) reported in 1987: ‘Today, many regions face risks of irreversible damage to the human environment that threaten the basis for human progress’ (WCED 1987).

The undervaluing of the environment is a major factor in terms of overexploitation of the environment (see Box 3.1).

Box 3.1 Environmental concerns a priority

The advocates of sustainable development have not yet succeeded in raising environmental concerns to a high priority in all countries. The perception remains in some quarters that environmental protection is something that can and should be addressed only when a country is rich enough to do so, and that it is a ‘low rate of return’ activity.Yet the evidence is mounting that local environmental destruction can accelerate the poverty spiral not only for future generations, but even for today’s population. It is obvious that countries which recklessly deplete their natural resources are destroying the basis of prosperity for future generations, but few policy makers have been able to persuade their constituents that, as forests disappear and water is exhausted or polluted, it is the poor of today, especially children and women, who suffer most.

Human vulnerability to environmental change is complex; it may, in fact, be as complex as ecological processes, where some cause and effect linkages are still not fully understood despite centuries of scientific research. Human vulnerability to environmental change has global, local, social and economic dimensions. It is not synonymous with disasters, even though such events generate more public awareness and response, and media interest (see Box 3.2).

Box 3.2 Woman gives birth during flood disaster

Sofia Pedro made world headlines in March 2000 when she gave birth to a daughter in a tree as the furious and raging waters of the flooded Limpopo River gushed below, laying to waste surrounding areas and devastating the lives of hundreds of thousands of her Mozambican compatriots. The Mozambican floods killed 700 people and left millions more homeless.

Perhaps the birth of Sofia Pedro’s daughter—Rosita Pedro—brought to reality the juxtaposition of the birth of a new human life and the death of others, and the struggle humanity faces today in dealing with the challenges of a merciless, changed environment whose devastation grows in intensity and impact. Often, the impact of episodes such as the Mozambican floods in early 2000 is hidden behind a string of statistics: the number of confirmed deaths, the numbers injured, the livelihoods lost, the infrastructure destroyed, the habitats lost and the damage caused. As the news headlines bombard people with such figures, the human face is lost, reducing people to a footnote of another disaster event.

However, Sofia Pedro refused to be a footnote of that devastating episode of nature in Mozambique, but a living symbol of the human spirit and resilience in the storm of an increasingly unforgiving hostile environment, which has changed dramatically over the past three decades. In those swift-flowing muddy waters below her were many people who were not so lucky. There were also deadly snakes, wild animals, livestock, and tonnes of soil on which millions of people in the Limpopo River basin depended for agriculture and food security. A way of life was swept away to the Indian Ocean to be drowned under masses of water. Left behind was human misery and people whose resilience had been compromised.

Sofia Pedro’s story not only exemplifies just how people have become more vulnerable to environmental change, but also that ultimately disasters have the greatest impact on the personal level. Her story has been played out countless times since time immemorial in different regions, countries, communities and homes. Many Sofia Pedros have been rescued in floods, droughts, earthquakes, landslides and avalanches—but even more have perished and continue to do so. The threats to human life today lurk in sudden and intense events such as earthquakes and landslides, and also in more insidious and slow-setting events such as droughts, ozone layer depletion and global warming.

Long after the devastation of the Mozambican floods, Sofia Pedro’s story lingers in the mind—a constant reference point not only of the fury of a river in flood, but also of the increased frequency and intensity with which the environment can unleash such terror.