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close this bookSustaining the Future. Economic, Social, and Environmental Change in Sub-Saharan Africa (UNU, 1996, 365 p.)
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View the documentEconomy and society: Development issues
View the documentEnvironmental issues and futures
View the documentEnvironment and resource management
View the documentInstitutional issues
View the documentEnvironment and development in Ghana
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Environmental issues and futures

If sustainable development or improvement in the quality of human life, whilst living within the capacity of supporting ecosystems, is to be effective in Sub-Saharan Africa it will require a more efficient economic performance capable of generating surpluses above the satisfaction of basic demands. It will also demand social systems able to resolve development tensions and create harmony between the production economy and the ecological basis for development, together with an evolved technology able to look for new solutions, sustainable international finance and trade, flexible administrative systems, and effective citizen participation in decision-making. Despite apparently low population densities in many regions of SubSaharan Africa, there are resource pressures owing to the increased scarcity of national capital and the decreased availability in most countries of international finance capital, which are worsened by the fact that economic indicators in many cases are giving the wrong signals about the sustainability of development in relation to environmental destruction, so that a new basis for the economy is required, informed by "environmental economics." In at least the short term, rather than attempt to raise the level of gross national product, it might be better to concentrate on environmental improvement, combined with income redistribution in order to minimize the poverty of the poorest. Modernization involves both losses and gains. Although it has brought education, science, technology, better health and sanitation, improved communication, water supply, and nutrition, and higher real incomes for many, it has also increased dependence on the West, introduced inappropriate technologies, weakened traditions, and created unsustainable lifestyles together with acculturation stress.

These problems are only part of a much larger set, including less abundant rains and recurrent droughts, especially in the semi-arid Sub-Saharan lands such as the Sahel region, where rainfall in the early 1970s was 15-35 per cent below normal. "Wet" or "dry" years seem to cluster in the Sahel, although not in southern Africa, so that Sahelian planning should focus on the driest years, not on the averages over given periods. Variations in time in the Sahel seem matched by variations in space, so that nearby villages can experience different rainfall regimes even when experiencing comparable rainfall totals. Desertification threatens the semi-arid lands as farming is taken beyond the limits of sustainable rain-fed agriculture and as strategies to combat it have met with only limited success, involving an apparent conflict of interest between foresters, farmers, and herders. Agro-forestry and small-scale "water-harvesting" techniques have the best potential to combat desertification and promote sustainable agricultural and fuelwood production.

Taking Sub-Saharan Africa as a whole, the chief source of environmental degradation considered in its entirety (including plant cover and species loss, destruction of fauna, climatic change, changes in water table levels and stream flow, and soil erosion) is deforestation, especially if followed by overcultivation and overgrazing. Although rates of deforestation seem to be highest in uplands and in dry deciduous forest, tropical rain forests provide particularly sensitive environments with generally highly weathered soils that are low in plant-available nutrient reserves and easily degraded by intensive land use. Yet more intensive use of existing land and the restoration of degraded lands are important strategies to reduce the need for additional deforestation as demand for food, industrial, and export crops increases with continued high rates of population growth and concentration, despite the generally low overall population densities by world standards. Science-based "best management practices" are available, but need to be fine-tuned to local conditions and adopted mainly on input-responsive prime agricultural land. It is estimated that over half the area of African climax tropical rain forest has been converted to other land uses (Richards 1990), but estimates are highly variable and erratic, and accurate inventories of land and its capability are needed for the rational utilization of forest resources.

The coastal zone and surrounding oceans of Sub-Saharan Africa have abundant resources of food, energy, and minerals, but consist of fragile ecosystems, subject to a variety of often conflicting uses, so that their potential for economic prosperity is threatened with environmental damage and resource loss. Most of the larger African cities are coastal, as are some of the larger population concentrations and much of the commercial and industrial development, together with a large part of the growing tourist industry. The considerable fish resources are threatened by the operations of large foreign fleets, while destructive fishing methods in the coastal zone include dynamite blasting and spear fishing on coral reefs and the unregulated use of unsuitable nets. Other damaging effects result from clearing mangroves, mining beach sand and gravel, metal pollution from coastal mining, constructing ports and harbours, disposing of urban sewage and wastes, pollution from the oil and gas industry, and some subsidence of sedimentary basins in the Niger delta from oil extraction. Oceans have no physical boundaries corresponding with national jurisdiction, so that remedies for current problems can be sought only within the framework of international agreements. However, on the whole the oceanic problems of the Sub-Saharan countries are less immediately damaging than those of the coastal zone, where adequate management requires legal controls.