Africa Environment Day: How climate change is affecting your health and why you must care

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BY CHIEDZA NZEMBE
Africa, according to United Nations (UN), faces serious environmental challenges, some of which include land degradation, water, and land pollution, deforestation, loss of biodiversity and extreme vulnerability to climate change.

Climate change has dramatically affected many parts of the world and there are several studies showing that climate change affects human health. Sadly, most of these studies cover developed countries compared to developing countries, which face extreme vulnerability.

Our health is being adversely affected by these changes and most of us do not know or care about climate change. The environmental changes such as droughts, floods, increased fire occurrences, forest changes, loss of biodiversity, increased temperatures are sudden and difficult to adapt to. All these have a direct influence on people’s mental and physical health.

Climate change refers to long-term shifts in temperatures and weather patterns. It is a natural occurrence, but since the 1800s, human activities have been influencing climate change to move at a rapid rate than normal. These activities release greenhouse gases (GHG), creating a blanket in the atmosphere stopping the sun’s energy from escaping back into space.

This trapped heat increases global temperatures, leading to climate change. You might be wondering which activities? They are a part of a series of activities we are used to doing everyday. Driving cars over short distances, deforestation, illegal waste dumping, burning of waste, consuming electricity gratuitously, use of non-renewable energy, ignorance towards the importance of supporting environmentally responsible initiatives, etc.

Human health is intricately interwoven to people’s surroundings and living conditions. It comprises mental and physical health. However, when people hear health, they automatically think of physical health and disregard mental health but these two go hand-in-hand. Because of this, many people struggle to define what mental health is compared to physical health.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), mental health refers to “a state of well-being in which the individual realises his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community”, while physical health is the wellbeing of our bodies.

Everyday during peak hours, the roads are ridiculously choked full of cars, some vomiting black fumes into the air and illegal dumpsites multiplying faster than rodents. If you get to a high vantage point early morning, you will see a blanket of smog covering houses and roads.

This is the air we breathe, the burning dumpsites we see everyday, contributing even further to climate change. Your health is determined by how you choose to live every day, not a year later or in the distant future.

Since the beginning of history, humans have been structuring their lives around seasons influenced by climate. African countries are dominated by subsistence farming, especially in rural areas. This contributes to food security and acts as their source of livelihood.

In the southern Sahara region, as global temperatures increase, droughts are becoming more prominent, and annual rainfall received continuously decreasing. What does this mean for subsistence farmers? Most of them cannot afford basic farming necessities, what more irrigation, greenhouses, etc. They are influenced to live highly stressful lifestyles that trigger various illnesses. Considering the current migration trend, most of the people in rural areas are old aged.

Moreover, the fact remains that most of our public services are neglected. This means the old, aged people are unable to get necessary services and resources from health facilities if unfortunate events strike, marginalising them even further. Most of us living in the city can relate to this because our parents and loved ones are in rural areas. We constantly worry about them while working hard, living from hand-to-mouth everyday. It’s a never-ending cycle.

I’m a firm believer in holistic health approaches, taking care of the mind, body, and spirit. That includes educating oneself about the consequences of his/her actions, not only on yourself, but your surroundings. This ensures reaching the golden ages fit and healthy, something many people neglect. Health is the true wealth over material gains we so tirelessly work for.

Furthermore, we cannot ignore the implications of how the daily high temperatures affect us, especially during summers. There are increased chances of heat strokes, chronic dehydration, irritable behaviours, and poor mental health stemming from stressful surroundings.

Zimbabwe has a huge informal sector and that means people are not sitting around in offices as you would expect with formal jobs. People are exposed to the hot sun and high temperatures working from sun-up to sun-down. All this stress does not serve our health and the environment well. To counteract the high temperatures, people buy packaged water to drink. Once done, they throw PET bottles on the ground. Though there are street cleaners and people making a living out of picking the bottles for recycling, it still does not justify the behaviour of littering everywhere. It’s not teaching our children the right and respectful way to treat the environment.

Within office buildings, more electricity is used to cool down temperatures via air conditioners. Very recently, I learnt that many companies spend a lot of money on electricity expenses when there are cheaper alternative energy sources like solar power. It is sustainable in the long run — financially and environmentally. The use of more electricity creates a high demand, requiring more coal electricity production.

Coal is one of the biggest contributors to GHG causing global warming. What’s more, the coal stations that produce some of the electricity used in Zimbabwe were supposed to be decommissioned in the 1940s, but are still running in the 21st century! It’s an environmental taboo!

We have a water crisis in Zimbabwe. In many households, taps have become ornamental objects. Many people stand in long queues to fetch water from community boreholes. Climate change has significantly reduced annual rainfall received, reducing the amount of water from rivers and wetland sources.

These water sources are not only affected by climate change, but other human activities such as pollution and urbanisation. For example, Mukuvisi River in Harare is heavily eutrophicated due to the agricultural activities around it. The artificial fertilizers used seep into the ground, polluting the water in the river and causing an overgrowth of plant species.

This is at the expense of other forms of life within the river. Once you have that, the delicate ecosystem has been disturbed and conditions just worsen from that point on.

Moreover, families have resorted to drilling boreholes on their properties to have a reliable source of water. Unfortunately, it comes at an invisible cost. We are not conditioned to think about why it’s important to save water.

The water is pumped up from underground sources that have been filling for possibly a thousand years if not more.

With the number of households using boreholes, without a water saving mentality and continuous extraction, it’s most likely that significant amounts of water are used and lost without being replaced.

Urbanisation has had much of soil surfaces covered and vegetation cleared inhibiting infiltration of water into the ground, thereby reducing water feeding into the underground water sources.

Surely, it’s not healthy to be standing for long periods at a time, but we are subjected to do so waiting to fetch water in blazing temperatures. I have observed that more women are exposed to this routine compared to men.

Not only are they standing when waiting in queues to get water, but at home as well, while tending to their chores. There could be women out there who suffer from severe back and leg aches as a result of fetching water. I have seen men making a living out of fetching water for people using scotch carts for transportation.

They are pushing and pulling heavy loads of weight at a time, exposed to high temperatures. This obviously has some health implications that may not be noticeable immediately, but you are guaranteed they will catch up. Do you see how climate change and our own actions are affecting our lives?

Let’s ponder on waste and climate change. There is no direct relationship upon which one can easily connect the two. However, the relationship they share plays a significant role in exacerbating climate change and impacting our health.

Most African countries have high consumption habits when it comes to everything. But everything we consume creates waste. Where this waste goes is not of concern to many people.

But I beg to differ that it should be our concern. Take Zimbabwe for instance, where local authorities cannot cater for systematic waste collection for most if not all communities.

People opt to dump waste on illegal dumpsites, which in most cases ends up getting burnt to dissipate it down. The smoke released from the dumpsites is highly toxic to our health, causing cancer, respiratory diseases, eyesight problems, even birth defects. It also adds to the existing blanket of GHG in the atmosphere stopping the sun’s heat from escaping back into space. So, instead of slowing down climate change, we are aiding in intensifying it through ignorance.

In Harare, all waste is dumped at Pomona dumpsite, which was 99% full in 2019 and we are just over three years down the line. In the same year, and some before that, there were major fires that gripped our city with fear.

The smoke was unforgettably distinct and choking. The smoke is highly toxic because the waste at the dumpsite is mixed with hazardous chemicals and flammable substances. Last week the City of Harare (COH) announced on Facebook that a German investor, Geogenix BV, is set to invest €304 million in a massive waste-to-energy project at Pomona dumpsite in Harare which is expected to generate up to 22 megawatts of electricity. Proceedings are to start within the next two weeks. This might be a pivotal point for Harare and pioneer the start of similar green projects that can impact our environment positively.

What can we do as Zimbabweans to help mitigate climate change, thereby reducing its adverse impacts on our health? It is key to change our consumption habits from extravagancy to sustainable minimalism.

Reducing our consumption habits means rethinking buying items that contribute to waste production and manufacturing. Reuse, repurpose, rethink.

There are many green projects that are starting within our communities. For example, in Mabvuku-Tafara, SHEQ ambassadors create art from different streams of waste, they make eco-bricks with discarded chibuku bottles. The eco-bricks are very durable because the plastic used has a very long life.

Other projects I have seen online here in Zimbabwe are glass recycling, glass is cut, redesigned, and repurposed as containers with bee’s wax cloths as the lids replacing plastic. Some people use eggshells to make pot abrasive cleaner more widely known as vim.

Repurposing items that might have been thrown away as waste reduces demand for supply, manufacturing, and useful materials we can repurpose to make a living out of. Manufacturing industries use huge volumes of energy, clean water to produce plastic and emit the same huge volumes of GHG.

We buy cheap plastic from the very countries that are reducing their own plastic use and transitioning to sustainable ways of living such as China. Where is the sense in that? We can do better my fellow Zimbabweans. Such is true for other African countries.

Furthermore, Zimbabwe is dominated by subsistence farming. Land and healthy soils are wealth and instrumental to our survival. Let’s take care of this soil the way it takes care of us providing food and other services.

Instead of using artificial fertilizers and succumbing to food waste, environmentally-friendly fertilizers can be easily created from biowaste. There are lots of tools and videos online dedicated to teaching you how to do this.

Government at large has been encouraging people to use the Pfumvudza system of farming. It is a climate change adapted system of farming that ensures water is efficiently captured and used to the benefit of the crop, therefore, maximising potential yield.

Be open-minded, learn about it, and try it. It also encourages people to use what is readily available, especially in rural areas such as manure from livestock, with no need for artificial fertilizers.

Artificial fertilizers are not only financially expensive to produce but cripple the soil by killing microorganisms that play a huge role in nutrient production and soil ecosystem support. One of my favourite quotes says: “To learn the art of life look at nature”. Untouched by the human hand it thrives and provides many essential resources.

Furthermore, make the environment an important aspect in every part of your life. Where are the products you are using daily coming from? Are the manufacturers of the products environmentally responsible?

I believe our market has untapped potential when it comes to sustainable businesses and strengthening our economy. We import most of our goods from neighbouring countries because the industries that used to provide them for us no longer do so due to economic reasons.

When we import, we cannot trace back the producers of certain goods to uphold environmental responsibility because the laws that bind them to this, serve the country in which they manufacture their goods.

However, necessity is the mother of all creation. People have started learning and creating products we use daily such as detergents, packaged foods, and goods. Can we not choose sustainable packaging, materials and support such local creations instead of continuous importation?

When we support local businesses, it creates strong relationships and reduces dependency to outside countries. In essence, we become a self-sufficient nation that is not easily influenced by outside political and economic strains from other countries.

Suddenly, you realise the environment is not only about protecting it individually, but also the relationships we share socially, publicly and professionally.

Water is life. Save it. When doing daily chores that require water don’t let water flow mindlessly out of the tap. It’s not necessary to overwater our gardens. Take advantage of the mulching technique. It encourages excellent living conditions for microorganisms, curbs weed growth, reduces evaporation, and gives you nutritious organic vegetables! Construction companies should consider building sustainably.

Greywater can be used to mould bricks and mix building materials instead of clean water and is a cheaper option financially. Build houses with greywater systems and spread knowledge about them.

There are countless ways to save water whether you are an individual, community or company. If we waste away what water we have now, odds are not in our favour with climate change.

Now that you have this knowledge, what will you do with it? What good are fancy houses, cars, and lifestyles when they come at the expense of our planet? We deserve better, so do future generations. Let’s stop stealing from our own well-being and live healthy and environmentally-conscious lives.

  • ˜Chiedza Nzembe is a passionate environmentalist and climate change advocate.
  • This story was produced under the WAN-IFRA Media Freedom African Media Grants initiative. The content produced reflects the author’s views and not those of WAN-IFRA Media Freedom, WAN-IFRA FR, or the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark