The Urgency for Environmental Research in Tropical Africa

A.M.A. Imevbore FAS,
Chairman, Environmental Resource Managers Ltd.,
107A Imam Abibu Adetoro Street, Victoria Island, Lagos.

Since the Earth Summit in 1992 which stressed that development is about meeting the needs of people, their health, their well-being, their lives and the environment on which they depend, environmental protection has become the most prominent new domain of politics and public policy to emerge. Today, the World Bank and all the development agencies demand that the environment be mainstreamed in all economic development programmes and projects. Indeed not only the World Bank but also the World Trade Organization (WTO) the International Labour Organization (ILO) the World Health Organization (WHO), the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nation (FAO), the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) all have their environment components. These environmental offices are the means through which these organizations interface with each other on related issues. Indeed, mainstreaming the environment into a diverse array of agencies represents one of the successes of modern international environmental policy. It allows coherency within the overall system to be pursued and they do not in any way represent redundancy of efforts.

Literally, the word environment refers to the surrounding of an object or entity. Humans experience the environment in which they live as the assemblage of physical, chemical, biological, social and economic conditions and these tend to differ according to local geography, infrastructure, season, time of day and activities undertaken.

The first logical question therefore is this: what are the key environmental issues and challenges facing tropical African countries? In considering this question it is customary to divide the threats or problems into traditional threats associated with lack of development and modern hazards associated with unsustainable development (WHO, 1997). According to the WHO (1997), traditional environmental hazards often relate to poverty and insufficient development and include the following:

  • Lack of access to safe drinking water.
  • Inadequate basic sanitation in the households and the community.
  • Food contamination with pathogens.
  • Indoor air pollution from cooking and heating using coal or biomass fuels.
  • Occupational injury hazards in agriculture and cottage industries.
  • Inadequate solid waste disposal.
  • Natural disasters including floods, droughts and earthquakes.
  • Disease vectors mainly insects and rodents.

On the other hand, modern environmental hazards are often related to rapid development that lacks health and environmental safeguards and are due to unsustainable consumption of natural resources.

These include:

  • Water pollution from populated areas, industry and intensive agriculture.
  • Urban air pollution from motor cars, coal power stations and industry.
  • Solid and hazardous waste accumulation.
  • Chemical and radiation hazards following introduction of industrial and agricultural technologies.
  • Emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases.
  • Deforestation, land degradation and other major ecological changes at local and regional levels.
  • Climate change, stratospheric ozone depletion and transboundary pollution.

One of the differences between traditional and modern environmental hazards is that the former are often rather quickly expressed as disease whereas the modern environmental hazards may take a longer period of time before any health effects are manifested. Similarly modern environmental hazards undermining the earth’s life support systems may take a long time to manifest. This is why understanding the environmental pathways through which the hazards move is particularly important. In any case, each of the traditional and modern hazards is associated with a variety of aspects of economic and social development with the result that there is in reality a complex relationship between environment and development and the cause-effect pathways used to analyse the multiple cause of the hazards leaves a society like ours with a compound mixture of both types of hazards.

What then are these major driving forces? As is well known, some of these major forces are: the size of the population of any country, the proportion of the population that is urban/rural, the issues of poverty in an equity, the marginalisation of minorities and gender inequalities especially those that lead to impoverished living environments for certain groups in society as well as the level of Science and Technology which are two of the most decisive forces for economic development. They have played and will continue to play a significant role not only in the search for new knowledge and more efficient means of agricultural and industrial production but also in saving lives, improving health, improving environmental conditions and promoting human development. Technological advancements can also be polluting and wasteful and may create serious potential risks for environment and health. The prevention and reduction of such risks then becomes a key issue for sustainable development (WHO, 1997).

These driving forces impose different kinds of pressure on the environment in such forms as waste from human settlements, depletion of natural resources, emission of pollutants due to mineral extraction, energy production, manufacturing, transport, agriculture, forestry and a wide range of health effects. These pressures can also lead to changes in the state of the environment. What will always be useful is information on the impacts attributable to these environmental conditions at national and local levels. Such information should drive research for development.

On the foregoing basis, tropical environmental research should be driven by a number of important objectives if such research will make significant impact on development (Anon, 1982):

  • the need for reliable, ecologically sound information on constraints to development;
  • the recognition that current ecological knowledge is limited and must be applied with caution;
  • the need to expand research on tropical ecology as a basis for long-term development planning;
  • the recognition that because humid tropical biota and ecosystems are highly diverse, knowledge and technologies may have but limited transferability from one area to another;
  • the appreciation that the diversity of agricultural use as reflected primarily in shifting agricultural systems, if replaced, must be by systems that are also compatible with climate and soils
  • the recognition that forest management is site-specific and that its success depends on an in situ human infrastructure that has a strong research component;
  • the need to expand knowledge on tropical soils and their potential uses;
  • the realisation that water resources development has an impact on many other ecosystems. (Anon, 1982).

The fact that for many aspects of the environment in several tropical African countries, the available knowledge is often inadequate to give high confidence in the consequences of decisions, there is the hope that the inauguration of Environtropica as a journal for the consideration of environmental issues in the broadest sense will help to stimulate research and exchange of information among researchers and decision makers.



Anon 1982: Ecological Aspects of Development in the Humid Tropics: Committee on Selected Biological Problems in the Humid Tropics, Division of Biological Sciences, Assembly of Life Sciences, National Research Council, Nigeria.

World Health Organization (1997) – Health and Environment in Sustainable Development: Five years after the Earth Summit. World Health Organization, Geneva.