Sunday, July 15, 2012

Healthy Environment Vital for Health and Wealth of a Nation


“One-eyed reason, deficient in its vision of depth”, is how the Anglo-American philosopher Alfred Whitehead described the scientific thought and philosophy of the 18th century.

The 18th century – the Age of Reason – astounds me with its fertile yet flawed imagination. So much of our understanding and relationship with our planet began then: the plenitude of nature; the notion of equilibrium; man’s dominion over nature; our industrial and consumer apparatus.

Today we live in an era shaped by human agency. From trawlers scraping the ocean to the miners stripping the earth to chainsaws decimating forests to nutrients chocking our lakes to factories fouling our atmosphere, our civilization has wrought an epoch of unprecedented planetary change, “the Age of Man”.

Nobel Prize Laureate Paul Crutzen called the “Age of Man” the Anthropocene, in which our actions to satisfy the demand food, fibre, fodder and energy put mankind at par with a force of nature. The Anthropocene marks a catastrophic transformation in our relationship with the planet and imperils the services of nature, which undergird our health and wellbeing.

Ecologist and economists have coined the phrase ecosystem services to describe the multiple services of nature that sustain human health and wellbeing on the planet. Although environmentalists and development practitioners use the term ecosystem services with promiscuous ease, it reinstates the fundamental and inextricable interdependence between mankind and nature.

Human health and wellbeing ultimately depends on nature’s services. Nature regulates disease transmission by providing a reservoir of non-human hosts for deadly parasites and pathogens. Forests and soils are a living filter for water, a sink for carbon, and a regulator of atmospheric gasses. Microbes, termites and earthworms underwrite the fertility and productivity of soils. Wetlands and mangroves clean our lakes and oceans and nurture the fish. Bees pollinate the crops that nourish our bodies and the flowers that bedeck our gardens.

Alfred Whitehead was right. The mechanistic materialism of the Age of Reason is and the notion of plenitude nature is why our relationship with the planet is broken.

Under investment in nutrient and water management has led to widespread soil degradation in Kenya’s agricultural land. Soil degradation is linked with low productivity, hunger and chronic malnutrition among millions of rural smallholder farm households.

Malnutrition is the biggest risk factor for morbidity and mortality among children under the age of five in Kenya. Various dimensions of malnutrition (e.g., protein, carbohydrate, micronutrient and vitamin A deficiency) account for 7 of the 13 leading risk factors associated with the global burden of diseases. 

A recent report by the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics and Kenya Medical Research Institute revealed that 35% of children are stunted. Malnutrition is associated with both structural and functional pathology of the brain and could have long lasting cognitive impairment. According to a study conducted in 2009, less than 37% of pupils in standard 3 attained standard 2 level competency in English and numeracy.

Studies have shown that Kakamega and South Nandi Forests lost about 10% of forest cover in the two decades between 1980 and 2000. Scientists at the Kenya Medical Research Institute showed that deforestation in Western Kenya highlands enhances mosquito vectorial capacity by 77%. Vectorial capacity is directly related to the number of bites per person per day and the life expectancy of the mosquito.

Rapid population growth, expansion of agricultural land in the upland catchments is responsible for discharge of sediments, nutrients and effluence into Lake Victoria. These changes have led to a highly eutrophic or fertile lake, hence the proliferation of water hyacinth and algae, with adverse consequences for water quality, fisheries, household incomes and the local economies.

Water hyacinth has been implicated in harboring the causative agent for cholera, Vibrio cholera. A study published in the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene in 2010 showed that yearly water hyacinth coverage on the Kenyan section of Lake Victoria was positively associated with the number of cholera cases reported in Nyanza Province. Surges in the number of cases of cholera in Nyanza Province coincide with two pulses in the eruption and abundance of water hyacinth; 1997–2000 and 2006–2008.

Putting nature under man’s dominion is woefully limited in its depth of understanding the interdependence between man and nature. Kenya does not need globally binding agreements to appreciate that a population expanding by over 1million per year needs more food, farmland, water, energy and shelter, which cannot be met on a declining natural capital base.

The seemingly inexorable decline of our natural capital and allied ecosystem services is partly due to lack of assessment and valuation. The farmlands, rangelands, forests, rivers, wetlands, lakes, coral reefs and mangroves of this country are capital assets and must be a part of our GDP reporting; valued in combination with financial capital, manufactured capital, and human capital.

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