Part 2: Issues in Sustainable Development

To the Instructor 

The readings in this block center around the problem of overuse of resources when no one has the clear responsibility for planning for the future and safeguarding of the resource. This classic problem in sustainability is referred to as “the tragedy of the commons” or, in economic terms, “negative externalities” and the problem of “public goods.”

The readings also explore the response to that problem: proper stewardship of natural resources through ecosystem management.

A suggested approach for beginning the block is to ask students for examples from their personal lives and the local environment. You could keep two lists on the blackboard, one of failures to manage public resources and one of successfully managed public resources. For example, throwing trash in the streets is a failure to manage a public resource, while a group of students living together who share a common cooking area represents a successfully managed public resource. A more relevant example for this block would be a community overfishing their coastal waters versus a community that restricts access to fishing grounds to maintain a self-sustaining level of fish.

If the sustainability game “Drain or Sustain?” was played in Part 1,  students should be reminded of how it worked. As time allows, the students may be invited to play this sustainability game again at the end of this block, with the alteration that each group is encouraged first to agree on a resource management plan.

This block includes two new sustainability issues: Land and Water, and returns to Forests and Oceans & Seas, focusing on timber removal and fishing. You are encouraged to introduce material on local resource conflicts and to focus on the resources that are most geographically relevant. For example, land in areas threatened with desertification, forests in Central Africa, or oceans & seas in coastal states.


Some countries in Africa have enough water, most however do not.  It is an unevenly distributed resource that must be managed very-wisely. Depletion and pollution of water resources cannot be afforded. Efficient, small-scale supply and irrigation methods must be maximized. The Sustainability Strategies provide examples of such methods. Through this module students should come to appreciate the seriousness of the problem and be knowledgeable about ways water can be managed efficiently at the local level.

Water Assignment Questions

  1. Interconnections: Water & Health: Why is access to clean water important for improving human health in Africa?

    • (from AEO 2) Inadequate sanitation resulting from polluted water and limited water supplies leads to waterborne and water-related diseases such as malaria, cholera, and diarrhea. Poor sanitation and unsafe water are leading causes of death among children. A significant proportion of the urban population and more than half of the rural population in Africa still lack access to water and sanitation.

  2. Interconnections: Water & Agriculture: Discuss irrigation’s role in increasing agricultural productivity in Africa.

    • (from Water and Food Security) In sub-Saharan Africa, only 4% of agricultural land is irrigated. In most crops, irrigation increases productivity by 100 to 400 percent. Freeing women from time-consuming water-carrying also allows more investment in market gardens. While large scale irrigation projects have high environmental and financial costs, smaller scale irrigation projects such as water harvesting techniques and using treadle pumps and motorized pumps are both affordable and sustainable.

  3. Water: List some of the important challenges for effective water management in Africa.

    • (from AEO 2, Gender Dimensions) Enforcement of legislation for water management, institutional know-how, reliable data on available water supplies, balancing the needs of different water users, international cooperation on transboundary river basins, the participation of women, effective cost-recovery charges.


In this module students learn about threats to land such as degradation, desertification, mining activities, as well as problems due to land ownership and tenure systems. With this knowledge, the students then explore land management approaches and, in the Sustainability Strategies, a variety of ways to manage, conserve, and restore land resources.

An out of classroom activity to consider is a visit to a Geographical Information System (GIS) laboratory so that students can observe land change through mapping technology.

Land Assignment Questions

  1. Land: Land degradation and desertification are major problems in Africa. What is land degradation and why is it a problem?

    • (fromLand Degradation - Global Overview) Land degradation refers to decreases in the productivity of land as a result of human activities. Soil erosion is a major factor. Causes of land degradation include deforestation, overgrazing, agricultural mismanagement, and urban construction.
    • (from Land Degradation – Africa) Dryland degradation, also referred to as desertification, may affect 46% of African land. Land degradation is a serious problem for poor farmers, who face decreasing yields.

  2. Land & Poverty- How does the pattern of land distribution contribute to rural poverty in Africa? Recalling issue materials from previous weeks, why does poverty in turn lead to land degradation?

    • (from Land Tenure – Africa and What is Land Tenure) Access to land is a major determinant of rural poverty and food security. It allows households to produce food for home consumption and surplus to sell for cash income. Land is highly inequitably distributed in Africa, often as a result of colonial policies, and land reform programs to increase equity have had mixed success. The poor are confined to marginal land and are forced to sacrifice long-term sustainability to vital short-term needs.

  3. Land- Why is secure tenure important for environmental sustainability?

    • (from Land Tenure – Africa and Land Reform and the Drylands) Secure tenure encourages farmers to invest in sustainable management of their land, such as planting trees, using improved soil practices, and improving pasture because they will reap the benefits of their investment. Experience has shown that secure tenure creates incentives for conservation and productive investment.

  4. Land- Explain how customary systems in dryland areas manage land resources. Does the “tragedy of the commons” occur? How should land tenure reform be conducted to improve sustainability?

    • (from Land Reform and the Drylands)  In the customary system, resource use is governed by the community, often represented by a group of elders. Customary systems allow for multiple systems of resource use to intersect without coming into conflict, such as herders grazing their livestock in cleared agricultural fields, and include commonly held resources.  The tragedy of the commons does occur where governments have undermined these traditional arrangements. A traditional approach to land tenure reform was to advocate a modern system of registration and land titles. However, this approach ignores the benefits of the customary system, and may result in acquisition of resources by those with the best connections during the titling process. A hybrid approach combining modern and customary elements should be advocated and pursued in consultation with the local community.


While in Ecosystems (Block 1) forests were explored in terms of their value as an ecosystem, here in the Economics of Ecosystems, forests are examined in terms of how valuable forest resources can be properly managed. At the end of the module students should understand what factors make forest management difficult and, by review of the Sustainability Strategies, how these difficulties are being overcome.

Forests (Review) Assignment Questions

  1. Forests: Characterize the forest cover in your region. What causes of deforestation are most relevant locally?

    • (from AEO 2) Responses will vary by region. Refer to graphs and tables in the AEO report. Major causes of deforestation include expansion of agricultural land, timber harvesting, fuel gathering, and natural disasters. In some countries, reforestation efforts are significant.

Oceans and Seas

In Ecosystems (Block 1) oceans and seas were examined in terms of their value. Here in Economics of Ecosystems, oceans and seas—especially mangrove forests and coral reefs, sustainable harvesting limits and other conservation and preservation approaches—are explored to see how such strategies can insure the viability of these saltwater resources.

Oceans and Seas (Review) Assignment Questions

  1. Oceans &Seas: Characterize the trend in fish catches in your region. What factors are driving this trend?

    • (from AEO 2) Responses will vary by region. Refer to graphs of reported catches since 1980. Major factors include habitat destruction, overfishing, and growth of aquaculture.

Economics of Ecosystems Discussion Questions

  1. Several broad approaches to managing natural resources seem to be assigning individual property rights (strengthening land tenure, fishing quotas), encouraging better communal responsibility (community forest management, awareness campaigns), or government management (water policies). Which approach do you personally find more appealing? Which approach generally works better in your community? Which approaches work best in different situations?
  2. How do equitable distribution and sustainable use reinforce one another in natural resource management?