Health and the Environment

Environmentally-related diseases not only affect the poor and vulnerable the most, but also contribute to keeping them poor.

In Africa, the poor are more at risk from the health effects of both traditional and emerging forms of environmental pollution and degradation. Most African poor people still depend on solid fuels for cooking and heating, which increases the risk of respiratory illnesses from indoor smoke. Indoor air pollution is driven primarily by household dependence on biomass and solid fuel combustion for cooking and heating. Similarly, poor populations are more likely to be exposed to diseases associated with unsafe water and sanitation. Poor agricultural and industrial workers, often working in the informal labour market or in substandard occupational health conditions, are at greater risk of acute poisoning and chronic illness from exposure to toxic substances, including pesticides and industrial chemicals. Pollution and contamination of air and water are major sources of human illness. Diarrhoea, strongly linked to unsafe water, food and inadequate sanitation, is the leading killer of children under five.

Pollution originates largely from domestic and urban wastewater, garbage and solid waste. Due to poor regulations and inadequate enforcement, industrial waste causes significant levels of pollution to drinking water from rivers and streams adjacent to agricultural production, plantations and aquatic facilities. The impact of agricultural pesticides and fertilizers on health is overlooked because of a lack of awareness of the extent of their impact of aquatic systems and on the lives of people.

The health impacts of climate change are likely to be borne disproportionately by poor populations, many of whom live in areas that are more vulnerable to the effects of a warming climate on weather-related natural disasters, including droughts, flooding and desertification. Finally, the harmful effects of depleted ecosystem services are borne disproportionately by the poor, including indigenous populations, who rely more directly on ecosystem services for basic food needs, shelter, livelihoods and medicines, which are gradually being depleted by broader development processes.

Priority action:

  • Promoting education and public participation in the control of water-borne diseases, water conservation and management;
  • Reviewing, updating and enforcing legislation relating to settlements, environmental health, safe water supply and sanitation, pollution and solid waste control, housing, food safety, hygiene and security;
  • Promoting effective communication and education about safe use of chemical agricultural pesticides and alternative agriculture/pest control practices;
  • Include information on water and sanitation related diseases in education programmes;
  • Ensuring that urban residents pay for environmental services provided to them;
  • Improve rainwater collection and storage technology, facilities for recycling wastewater;
  • Developing and promoting rain-water harvesting, storage, and disinfection technologies;
  • Establishing systems for control and management of chemicals and hazardous waste.