A myriad of social and economic factors, ranging from demographic changes, poverty and health, industry and trade, economic liberalization including structural adjustment programmes (SAPs) and resource extraction impact on and shape the environmental challenges facing Africa. Thus understanding problems and defining effective responses to the challenges presented often requires multilevel and inter-sectoral cooperation.

Directly and indirectly, anthropogenic activities affect ecosystem health and productivity. Economic factors, particularly trade, and science and technology, are major recurring themes that affect, and in many cases exacerbate, problems.

A key challenge facing Africa is the entrenched nature of poverty, which traps people into unsustainable livelihoods and perpetuates their dependency on the primary use of natural resources. This subsistence-based existence is further compromised by extreme weather events, such as droughts, and cumulative environmental change. Box 5 highlights the interlinkages between environment and human society and looks at how environmental change and in particular the disappearance of the Alemaya lakes in the Ethiopian Highlands has changed the lives of more than half a million people of that area.

Box 5: Environmental change impacts lake population in Ethiopian Highlands

The Alemaya lakes in the Ethiopian Highlands originally covered more than 175 140 ha but had shrunk to 87 910 ha in 1985 and to a mere 58 600 ha in 2002. It is now believed that the lakes have all but completely dried up.

The loss of the lakes, which were a source of drinking water and were used for irrigation and fisheries, has affected the livelihoods and well-being of more than 550 000 people in the Ethiopian towns of Alemaya and Harar. Irrigation has had to be discontinued, effectively eliminating the supply of fresh vegetables and fruits in both towns. The people also no longer have access to fresh fish from the lakes.

Preliminary research seems to suggest that serious siltation has been a major factor in the destruction of the lakes. A dramatic increase in urban and rural settlements is also believed to have put tremendous pressure on natural resources in the area, including water resources. Engineering works, including the construction of roads and other infrastructure, may have led to the loosening of topsoil, leading to soil erosion and siltation of the lakes. The images below show the dramatic environmental change between 1985 and 2002.

Source: RCMRD 2005


Demographic change impacts on the environment in many ways. The relationship between demographic factors and the environment is multidimensional and is affected by change in other sectors including trade, economic activity, investment, research and the development of technology. Poverty, health and governance systems are also closely linked to how demographic changes will impact on the environment.

Population growth and density is one of the most important drivers of environmental change in Africa, particularly as this relates to the exploitation and use of the environment as well as to waste generation and its management. In the last two decades (1980- 2000), the population of Africa grew from 469 million to 798 million (FAO 2003), increasing demand for food, water, arable land and firewood as well as other material needs such as education, health care, housing, energy, transport and infrastructure. Related activities in, but not limited to, industry and trade create new environmental pressures and thus, if poorly managed, economic growth can negatively impact on the environment.

Expanded economic activities which are poorly planned and inadequately monitored can place increased pressure on ecosystems, including forests and woodlands, and coastal and marine areas, through the loss of biodiversity, habitat degradation, and water, land and air pollution. However, the pressure placed on the environment by a growing population is exacerbated by the lack of alternative livelihoods. Limited opportunity for adding value to natural resources harvested and an economy that encourages the export of unprocessed materials may lead to ever- increasing harvests. Increased use of natural resources, for example the use of biomass in many cities in Western Africa for charcoal production to meet growing energy needs, is a result of the lack of alternative clean and environmentally friendly energies, which in turn can be attributed to the lack of investment in research and development.

The degradation of natural resources may adversely affect the very livelihoods dependent on them, forcing people to develop coping strategies that can be detrimental to ecological sustainability. The Commission for Africa (2005) finds that moving to cities is one such coping strategy. The inability of natural resources to meet needs may be more than just a matter of availability of resources but a feature of access and distribution patterns. Insecure tenure and laws prevent rural people from managing and using natural resources as assets. This undercuts productivity and efficiency. In 1980, only 28 per cent of Africans lived in cities; however by 2030, the proportion of Africa’s urbanized population is expected to reach 53.5 per cent, compared to 39 per cent today (compiled from WRI 2005). Africa is the fastest urbanizing region in the world and it is also one of the poorest. Although urbanization is closely associated with people seeking new livelihood opportunities, rapidly growing urban environments may not be able to provide these. Urbanization may create new pressures on existing infrastructure, leading to the spread of informal settlements. Some 72 per cent of Africans living in urban areas live in slums without access to basic environmental or social services (UN-Habitat 2003). Urban livelihoods in Africa are often characterized by worsening standards of human well-being including:

  • Inadequate access to shelter and security of tenure, and all the problems associated with overcrowding;
  • Growing vulnerability to environmental health problems and natural disasters;
  • Growing inequality and increasing crime and violence, which have a disproportionate impact on women and the poorest of the poor; and
  • A lack of community participation in decision making (UN-Habitat 2003).

The extreme deprivation of health, education and other services as well as poor social relations makes breaking out of poverty difficult. These factors, along with the lack of opportunity available to poor people, have heavy environmental costs.

In the absence of viable alternative livelihoods, urbanization may, in itself, constitute an increased pressure on natural resources through direct and indirect use. Inadequate urban planning, including poor infrastructural development, and the inability of the economic sector to fully absorb growing needs, means that urban populations continue to rely on natural resources as a source of supplementary income. This may include collecting natural resources, such as wild fruit and firewood, for immediate domestic use or as the basis for commercial activity. Urban agriculture is a particularly important phenomenon. In Northern Africa, urbanization is leading to the loss of fertile land, desertification, soil erosion, clearance of forests and woodlands, and pollution of surface and groundwater. In Southern Africa, as shown in Box 6, SAPs resulted in more poor people in urban areas engaging in agriculture.

Box 6: Environmental and social impacts of urban agriculture

In Zimbabwe, both cropping and animal husbandry are practised extensively in cities, primarily in order to supplement nutritional needs. Women are the main participants in urban agricultural activities, possibly due to economic disadvantage, the lack of alternative opportunities and women’s role in household food provision and preparation.

Urban agriculture provides important opportunities for poor people. Low-income households engaged in urban agriculture are generally better off than those not engaged in agricultural activities: they tend to have more meals per day, they can afford to purchase protein-rich foods, and they exhibit better overall health. Economic outputs are significant and self-production of food allows low-income households to save money on foodstuffs.

In the affected areas, no conservation measures were found. Urban agriculture was found to:

  • Affect the cost of urban management (eg run-off increase leading to increased costs of infrastructure maintenance such as water purifying tanks);
  • Result in nutrients accumulating in water bodies. Organic elements found in water were too high for human consumption, irrigation use or support for aquatic life;
  • Deprive the soil of nutrients; and
  • Result in tree loss from the opening up of land for agricultural production.

Source: IDRC 2002

There can be remarkable damage to marine and coastal ecosystems from urban expansion and sprawl in coastal zones, as shown in Chapter 5: Coastal and Marine Environments. Coastal and marine pollution, and the resulting degradation of water quality, are driven by urban, residential and industrial wastes from inland systems as well as from coastal cities. Growing urban areas attract major industrial clustering. In many countries, industrial and mining activities contribute significantly to water and atmospheric pollution, placing new burdens not only on the environment and human health but also on already struggling public sector institutions, such as health services and local government institutions, which are often responsible for regulating and managing pollution management. In Eastern Africa, the clearance of mangroves for urban settlements is affecting marine and coastal ecosystems.

These environmental problems are not simply the result of population growth, but are closely linked to other social and economic factors. For example, the lack of adequate investment in infrastructural development that can support these growing communities is an important factor contributing to the lack of economic opportunity, high environmental costs and thus low levels of human well-being. High transportation costs in Africa have a severe impact on trade (UN Millennium Project 2005c), increasing the costs of products and suppressing demand. The railways and roads put in place in colonial times were primarily designed to transport minerals and other raw materials to the ports for shipping to Europe. They were not designed to encourage trade among African sub-regions. Africa’s transport costs – local, national, regional and international – are twice or more than those of Asian countries (Commission for Africa 2005).

The short-term positive human well-being gains and the negative environmental costs demonstrate the need for policy approaches that can create a win-win situation. Chapters 2-7 of Section 2: Environmental State-And-Trends: 20-Year Retrospective consider the opportunities presented by environmental goods-andservices for human development.