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Monday, September 29, 2014

Economic growth and climate action are compatible

Keep the ice caps frozen. Fossil free. Not politicians, but you will save the world. Creation is sacred, stop destroying our world. These were some of the messages on the banners carried by nearly 400,000 people – men and women, young and old – who participated in the “Peoples Climate March” in New York City, ahead of the UN Climate Summit held on September 23, 2014.

The New York march was the largest of 2,646 events in 156 countries, which provided a strong platform for ordinary made it clear that urgent action is needed to combat climate change. But something else of notable consequence emerged ahead of the UN Climate Summit. The Rockefeller Brothers Fund has announced that it eliminated investments in coal and tar sands was in the process of unwinding the broader realm of investments fossil fuels while increasing investments in alternative energy sources.  

About $4.2 billion in assets held by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and 50 other foundations will no longer be invested in fossil fuel companies. In all, philanthropies, faith-based organizations, universities and pension funds have pledged to divest assets worth more than $50 billion from portfolios. In the grand scheme of things, this is not huge, but it is a significant signal, especially to countries such as Kenya that are on the cusp of the hydrocarbon bonanza.

At the UN Climate Summit, politicians affirmed that of all the immediate challenges facing the world today, the urgent and growing threat of climate change was the most profound. The strong growth of the global economy before the financial meltdown was characterized by massive surge in greenhouse gas emissions from an exponential increase in the use of fossil fuels. It is estimated that the world pumped an estimated 36 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere last year, a 2.3 per cent increase from 2012. 

India’s emissions grew by 5.1 per cent in 2013. China’s emissions grew by 4.2 per cent, while US emissions grew by 2.9 percent. For many years, these top three carbon dioxide emitters have maintained that cutting global emissions and transitioning to cleaner energy would undermine economic growth. Groups opposed to climate change action argue that the only way to cut emissions substantially is to eliminate economic growth. Nothing could be more simplistic and naïve.

A new study, “The New Climate Economy”, argues that efficient investments could deliver at least half of the emission cuts needed by 2030 to keep global temperatures in check, while delivering extra economic gains. The report further argues that putting a price on carbon would have large co-benefits, positive benefits beyond reducing climate risks, like reduction in the number of people sickened and killed by pollution from fossil fuels.

Our generation will be the first to bear the brunt of climate change. But ours, backed by unprecedented advances in science and technology, is also the only generation that has the capacity to act boldly to slow global warming and heal the planet. As noted by US President Barack Obama in his address to the UN Climate Summit, “we cannot condemn our children and their children to a future that is beyond their capacity to repair”.

When it comes to combating climate change there can be no such thing as common but differentiated responsibility (CBDR). All of us – industry, individuals or countries – must recognize our role in creating the carbon problem and accept responsibility to clean it up. We afford the luxury of waiting for an international agreement to combat climate change.

Nothing captures the essence of our common and undifferentiated obligation to our planet better than the words sang by Natasha Bedingfield at the closing of the UN Climate Summit. “Looking down from up on the moon; It’s a tiny blue marble; Who would have thought the ground we stand on could be so fragile; This is a love song to the earth; You’re no ordinary world; A diamond in the universe; Heaven’s poetry to us; Keep it safe, keep it safe, keep it safe; Cause it’s our world, it’s our world”.

Africa can skip the dirty phase of development. The notion that economic development and action to combat climate change are incompatible is short-witted and unconscionable. Moreover, if we truly believe in free market economy, we must trust that it is adaptive and creative enough to respond to carbon pricing. Do we have the courage to act? 

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

HIV/AIDS, Nile Perch, Water Hyacinth

In the 5th Century B.C., Greek historian, Herodotus, declared Egypt the gift of the Nile. For nearly 2,000 years the source of the Nile remained a mystery. But in 1858, British Explorer, stood on the shore of huge water mass. John Speke had discovered the Lake Victoria, the source of the Nile.
With a surface area of 68,000 square kilometers – roughly the size of Ireland or Sierra Leone and larger than Denmark or Netherlands – Lake Victoria is the world’s second largest freshwater lake. The lake is drained by an upland basin of about 184,000 square kilometers, roughly the size of Syria or Senegal. The population of Lake Victoria basin is estimated at 42 million and is projected to reach 61 million by 2020. It is therefore one of the most densely populated regions in Africa, besides the Ethiopian highlands.
Lake Victoria was once home to about 500 species of cichlid fish. The cichlids are thought to have diversified from just a handful of species in circa 15,000, when the lake dried up. Scientists believe that Lake Victoria has dried up and re-filled several tomes in its nearly 400,000-year life.
The recent history of Lake Victoria is also has a deeply human dimension. I have told the story of grandmother Ann before. Ann recounted memories of three-quarters of a century lived on the shores of Lake Victoria. She talked about poor yields and barren soils, scarlet rivers and dusty fields, denuded hills and flash floods. She remembered her youthful years, five decades ago, as a fish trader when the water was clear, fish were abundant, the hilltops were green and lush, and harvests plentiful.
I remember the story of Mama Mwamba. She also recounted her youthful years as a fish trader, when fish was plentiful. She recalled how things changed with the introduction of the Nile perch, the decline of local fisheries and the proliferation of the water hyacinth. “Today things are different, my late daughters-in-law would go for months to remote towns to trade in fish, after several years and without much to show for it, they came back home, too ill. In the last three years I buried all my three sons and their wives”. She narrated as she tried to hold back the pain and tears of her loss.
These two stories speak to the profound changes in the human society, the land and the lake. The introduction of the Nile perch in the 1950s is associated with the extirpation of hundreds of native fish species. An influx of nutrients into the lake – mainly through soil erosion caused by soil erosion, municipal effluence – have led to increase in algal blooms and the proliferation of water hyacinth and other aquatic plants. The ecological integrity of the lake and the adjoining basin is coupled, inextricably bound, with the livelihoods and wellbeing of the hundreds of thousands of families who depend on the lake and the land.
In my view, the inexorable decline in the lake fisheries – attributable to the twin assault on indigenous fish stocks by the algal blooms, proliferation of the water hyacinth and the voracious Nile perch – has deadly implications. It is plausible that the high incidence of HIV/AIDS, 25-35 percent, in the villages and cities around the lake is sustained by the ecological disaster in that is driving persistent decline in Lake Victoria fisheries. This causes fish traders, mainly women, to use not just cash to obtain fish from the fishermen. This phenomenon has been characterized as sex for fish. Sex for fish is common in many low and middle-income developing countries.
If you have not, you must watch Hubert Sauper’ Darwin's Nightmare. It is a fascinating story of the ecology of Lake Victoria, globalization, fish and HIV/AIDS and the fishing communities.
As an ecosystems ecologists and a student of complexity, the Nile perch, the collapse of the diverse indigenous fisheries, land degradation, decline in water quality, the story of fish cities, and the prevalence of HIV/AIDS among most lakeshore communities demonstrates the complex interdependence of between human and ecological systems. What we see now are interesting possible associations, which are crying out for in-depth and rigorous collaborative investigation, bringing together ecologists, sociologists, economists, anthropologists, physicians and public health specialists.
Lake Victoria must cause us to re-think how we educate the next generation of scholars and policy makers. Understanding complexity matters. 

Monday, September 15, 2014

Ebola virus exposes Africa’s soft underbelly

The spread of the Ebola virus has been fast and deadly. The Ebola outbreak is the largest in history and the first in West Africa. As of September 6, 2014, World Health Organization (WHO) said it had recorded about 4,300 cases in five West African countries and the death toll was estimated at about 2,300.
But new figures from Liberia, the country worst hit by the Ebola crisis, are yet to be released. According to WHO, we should expect thousands of new cases in the next three weeks. Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf says the crisis could worsen as the public health system staggers with inadequate supplies, a population gripped in deathly fear and limited outside support. As always, in emergencies such as this, global response if often slow and limited in scale. 
While the devastation wrought by Ebola is both saddening and depressing it is hardly surprising. Ebola has hit some of the most impoverished countries and has exposed well-known vulnerabilities in Africa’s public health infrastructure. With vision and dedication, Liberia has made steady progress in delivering basic health care to its citizens since the end of the civil war in 2003. But vision and dedication does not cut it. Liberia’s health care system is beset with crippling capacity problems; a chronic shortage health care professionals, lack of equipment and poor supply of essential medicines.
Lack of capacity to deliver health critical services are not limited to Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria or Sierra Leone. These are critical concerns as Africa continues to grapple with a multitude of health challenges, not least of which is the unyielding burden of infectious diseases, which account for neatly 70 percent of deaths on the continent. But Africa’s fragile health systems must confront a new challenge. WHO projects that over the next 10 years the continent will register the largest increase in mortality from Non-communicable diseases (NCDs); cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes and respiratory diseases.
The burden of chronic illness in Africa is projected to increase by 27 percent, killing 28 million people over the next 10 years. Cancer rates in Sub-Saharan Africa are expected to rise by 85 percent by 2030. Similarly, it is estimated that 41.5 million African will be living with diabetes by 2035. In addition to the staggering burden of infectious diseases, the cost of treating NCDs, direct and indirect economic burden of chronic illness will further hinder progress toward attaining the broader goals of sustainable development.
Africa’s shambolic healthcare infrastructure must be viewed against the Africa rising narrative. Africa is ascending economically. Africa is seen an emerging market by many in the global business community. Moreover, Africa’s youthfulness and its bonanza of its mineral resources, including hydrocarbons make it truly the continent of the future. However, Africa rising narrative reminds me of the myth of Icarus and Daedalus.
Daedalus constructed wings, from feathers and wax, for himself and his son Icarus so they could escape from the Labyrinth in Crete.  Before they set off, Daedalus warned Icarus not to fly too high lest the sun melt the wax. Overcome by the excitement of flying, Icarus ignored his father’s warning, flew to close to sun, his wings melted and he crushed into the sea.
Here is why the Icarus and Daedalus myth is relevant to Africa. African leaders and the international business community are overwhelmed by the Africa rising narrative, which is purely based on headline GDP and the surge in commodity trade. To realize its potential fully in the long run, Africans needs forge strategic partnerships to mobilize public and private investments to tackle some of the continent’s most enduring challenges.

What Africa needs, if it is, to claim to the 21st century is a solid foundation of human capacity. Africa must lay the foundation upon which to build world-class human capital for the future by investing significant budget and planning resources in education and skill building for the youth, healthcare, affordable housing for a burgeoning urban population, water and sanitation services for its vast rural population, food and nutrition security for the hundreds of millions who are hungry and malnourished.

I have always argued that Africa’s neglected priority challenges will not resolve inevitably, and in honor of Africa’s meteoric GDP growth. The Ebola emergency has shone a bright light on Africa’s underlying problem, governance incapacity, which is manifested in weak and ineffective public institutions. We have work do to. 


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