Ecologically Nothing Ever Really Dies

EcoLogically Nothing Ever Really Dies, Only transformed from one useful form to another...

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Climate science Vs the old lady with sensitive limbs?

We have an old lady in my village who has mastered the art of weather forecasting to a tee. Her methods are unconventional but she is well respected and trusted in the community. As it turns out, gogo Chagweda can tell the weather to as far ahead as 4 weeks based of her own health.  “Ndinonzwa mitezo yangu yorwadza, ndoziva kuti mvura yave pedyo kuuya” (I can tell that the rains will be upon us soon when my limbs start to ache). Of course anyone would be forgiven for laughing this off.  Think about it. Limbs and rainfall…really! How would you react to such a claim? Would you not scoff at this statement?

However, whether we believe in the old lady’s methods or not is immaterial. Her community does. For as long as gogo Chagweda continues to make her “forecasts,” scientific forecasts have no value in my village, more so when they do not tally with her predictions. Now that’s quite a pickle for conventional science. Years of scientific research has no chance against an old lady armed with her sensitive limbs, huh? While my village case is a little extreme and slightly cynical (just to illustrate a point of course) example of Indegeneous Knowledge Systems (IKS) , similar situations will most likely exist in African villages. Here communities trust their age old IKS (of which old ladies like gogo Chagweda may be custodians) to conventional science.  
Panel discussion on indegeneous knowledge and climate change at COP 17.

So long as science continues to shy away from recognising (and I say this with the greatest amount of care) the value of local knowledge of weather and climate, the work of scientists may continue to be shunned by local communities. Scientific work will continue to play second fiddle to IKS. Given the present and potential future challenges that climate change poses especially to local resource-poor communities, isn’t it vital that conventional science and IKS find some level ground? Shouldn’t they at least start to have a conversation to that end? The way I see it, science needs to do the courting not the other way around. The Maasai certainly think so. Speaking at a side event organised by CTA at COP17, Mosses Ndiayine, Director of the Indigenous Heartland Organisation in Tanzania, a Maasai and full time livestock header said "It’s unfortunate we haven’t been able to put this knowledge in books, films and tape, we could share our knowledge with the world." “We can tell scientists that this is what we have to share and maybe they can learn from us” He continued. See video as Mosses speaks about the use of animal sounds and vegetation for weather forecasting by the Maasai.

I think the ability of scientists to approach such knowledge and community wisdom with respect and understanding can be the difference between successful community use of scientific information and failure. Yet this is as rare as a 3 dollar bill. As scientists, we learn to be suspicious of anything which cannot be verified scientifically, quantified or “reasonably” explained. But by ending there, we may miss out on the inspiration that we need in order to bridge between science and community application and acceptance of our work.

At the same COP17 side event, the director of Indegeneous people of Africa coordinating committee IPAAC, hit the nail on the head when he said “Locals have an intimate relationship with their local landscape, traditional knowledge should therefore be taken into account in policy frameworks.” We need to start having these conversations with open minds. In these deliberations lie the answers to the successful application of science at community level. Given what is at stake, shouldn’t we be trying? I know the African Young Scientists Initiative on Climate Change and Indigenous Knowledge Systems (AYSICCIKS) are. There are more initiatives out there i should think and it would be interesting to follow the progress they are making in their work.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

It’s not all sad stories and begging baskets in Africa

Talk about ordinary people doing it for themselves, taking things into their own hands and pulling themselves from the jaws of poverty.  Happy Shongwe is one such person. Having lived for a greater part of her life under difficult circumstances, Happy has shown an impressive will to uplift herself and her family.
Happy Shongwe and Sam Sithole

In a space of less than a decade, Happy has transformed her life from lack into a well-established award-winning farmer and agro-business woman. She is a clear example of what one can do if they apply themselves to a vision wholeheartedly. Happy now owns  a productive farm, and seed business in Swaziland. She also co-ordinates women from her community in a bid to empower them to be self-sufficient as well. Being a rural African woman, Happy  is typically hardworking, she was raised that way. She is also very community-focused and wants her community to rise from poverty to comfort.

Notably, this kind of story is quite typical in African villages. These qualities of our people should be celebrated and upheld.  Unfortunately most of these stories are hardly ever reported. Thanks to FANRPAN, Happy is able to tell her story to the world and inspire other woman and communities around the continent. Maybe this is the catalyst that we need to loosen our dependence on food aid on a continent which has such natural potential to feed itself. Fancy working up each morning to the daily paper leading with a new story of such inspirational persons. Imagine the effect it could have.

I had the opportunity to meet yet another example of this hardworking, resourceful African woman in Lydia Sasu of Ghanan (in Video).  Yet another typical African mother if I ever saw one.  Hardworking, caring and very humble. And yet her work and mobilisation of local women around farming in Ghanaian villages has earned her worldwide recognition. She is clearly flattered and surprised by all the accolades. She would do it sans awards anyway.  This is what she does, this is the life she knows and loves.  She wouldn’t do anything else. What a blessing that our young African brothers and sisters are raised and learn from these women.

“A farmer doesn’t rest. He is always trying this or that thing. "Mr Isaiah Sithole defined the typical African farming man in response to the question “Why do you do so many things at once” at the recent side event hosted by FANRPAN at COP17. Sithole is yet another clear example of the self-empowering African. A humble, unassuming and soft spoken man, Sithole has been able to make the best of humble beginnings to become a self-sufficient  farmer who deals in crops, poultry and livestock all in one. He is a self-made agro-business man in Swaziland and like Happy was able to tell his story and inspire other African farmers at a FANRPPAN side event at COP17’s Agriculture and Rural Development Day(ARDD).

There are many other such stories out there. Stories of ordinary rural African folk making it happen for themselves and their communities. May they be a shining example of what ordinary people can do for themselves and their communities. Kudos to all those organisations like FANRPAN, CONNECT4CLIMATE and CTA who are trying to bring these stories to the rest of the world!

Monday, December 5, 2011

Fitting tribute to Wangari Maathai at COP17: Now to take her vision forward

 Just had an inspiring day. The kind that makes you want to go out there and do something significant. Sign your name to a large portion of the earth, to remain there for eternity. I sat through a session that did just that for me today. The Forest Day 5 at COP17 in Durban South Africa gave a fitting send off and tribute to Wangari Maathai. A touching 8 minute video documented her vision and some of her achievements (based on the video below). Speaker after speaker showered unending praises for her visionary work. It got me thinking.
Wangari Maathai:

Just how much of a difference can a single person or a “not-so-empowered” group of people with an idea to serve make? In Wangari’s words, “Grass roots people can change the world.” That she did. A single and simple idea to plant a tree and get the rest of the world doing the same started movements on the continent and all over the world which have changed the lives of ordinary people, the way we see and appreciate the environment and demonstrated how much well organised pressure from ordinary people can force politicians into action. Whats more, all this she did from humble beginnings. 

The Forest Day 5 sessions focused on REDD+ and how to operationalize it (among a few other related issues). Most ideas thrown around by delegates circled around community ownership of land, community-led reforestation projects, and incorporation of agriculture and gender issues. Interesting, especially considering that this is exactly what Wangari thought and set out to do when she started the Green Belt Movement(GBM) in Kenya in the year...wait for it…wait for it… 1977! Suprisingly, more than 3 decades later, the world’s leading thinkers, policy-makers and civic organisations are still debating such a “no-brainer.” The results of Wangari’s approach are self-evident in Kenya,and the mobiliation of global movements. Yet, progress on REDD+ is still very slow.

How did she do it? She was fearless, she got involved, rolled her sleeves and dug in (see video). Wangari challenged the powers that be and forced them to do that which needed to be done. She started small with what was around her and scaled up. Without taking anything away from current well-meaning efforts to get REDD+ working, it looks to me like there is lots to be learnt from Wangari Maathai and GBM. Sealing the REDD+ deal would be a fitting tribute to her. The question is, how? Are we willing to take the stand that she did and can we get the “powers that be” to do what obviously needs to be done, in the way it needs to be done?

At COP17 Forest Day 5 with M Dhlamini (CANGO-Swaziland) and E. Chivhenge (Gottingen University- Germany)

Friday, October 7, 2011

Agro-sensual: Making agriculture “sexy” for the youth in a changing climate!

“We are young and we are fast, we want things to happen quickly, it is our nature. God made us that way so that we can accumulate as much assets as possible before we age.” Don’t I just wish I had said those words? These are the words of Talentus Mthunzi of ORAP, a rural agricultural organisation based in Zimbabwe at the recent FANRPAN regional dialogue on food security and youth engagement in agriculture held in Swaziland. 
nkulumo, Swaziland's youth minister and Talentus Mthunzi
Talentus was responding to questions raised by elder delegates to the meeting. 
Concern was that in light of climate change, youth participation in agriculture at the present is important to ensure future food security. Yet, it is clear that young people are as interested in agriculture as they are in lawn bawling, or fishing, or counting the sand on the beach, or ... you get the picture. The question was why is there so much disinterest in agriculture among the youth?
Maureen Agena as a member of the panel at the meeting
Talentus’ response, agriculture just doesn’t pay quick enough. Young people do not have the patience to wait. They want returns now, not next season, not next year, now... yesterday. Another articulate youth, Maureen Agena from Uganda put it another way. “Agriculture just isn’t sexy enough.”  Young people are all for the glitz and the glamour, not the grit and grime. To attract more youth in the industry, agriculture needs to become sassier. Maureen gave a scenario to demonstrate her point. “I graduate from college with a degree in agriculture and I am consoled... my brother graduates with a degree in medicine and he is congratulated.” It is a matter of mindset. I couldn’t agree more. We have been raised in a society which celebrates Doctors, Engineers, Pilots, Educators and the like and looks upon Farmers with the “Oh poor thing, couldn’t get a proper job look”. This mindset needs to be adjusted. There is hope still. 
Hilma Angula makes her point to the delegates
Young people are driven, they want to get ahead. They are full of ideas which can change any industry and mindset setback. If anyone can change the negative perception of agriculture and shape the future of our continent’s food security status in a changing climate, it is the youth. They just simply need to be enabled through guidance and financial leverage. As another young person at the dialogue put it “we are young, we have the ideas but where is the support...? If we have a string and you pull from that end and we pull from this end, we can tie a note” Hilma Angula, Namibian Youth Coalition on Climate Change.  

If venture capitalists didn’t believe in and support young Larry Page and Sergey Brin (Google co-founders), we would still be struggling to find information on the internet. Maybe the internet is not much of a priority on this continent at the moment. Food security comes first. More so with the pressure expected to be exerted on our food production systems by climate change.  Maybe with the right amount of belief and support, we can find our own Page and Brin in the agricultural sector. A couple (hopefully more, the more the better) of inspired and determined young people with a dream to transform the sector and provide all people with unlimited access to food.  

Its early days yet, but with organisations like FANRPAN trying to give the youth opportunities to showcase their capabilities and to share ideas on how to improve agriculture despite/under the climate change threat. It looks like we are heading somewhere. We may just need to pick up the pace.
The Youth delegation with the Youth Minister of Swaziland and the CEO of FANRPAN

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Environmental consciousness: The new competitive edge for companies

Should organizations care about the implications that their products and services have on the environment?  The simple and direct answer is yes. It is not just about our natural environment being able to sustain life on this planet for present and future generations. It is about a new and imminent competitive edge that is set to make a big difference in business in the 21st century.
In today's world, corporate activities are too frequently subsidized by non-monetary "external" costs paid by the environment and the earth at large. This has led to a backlash from environmentalists who constantly call for strict regulation of operations and punitive measures on business. However, it is my opinion that businesses should be able to self regulate and consider the impact of their activities on the environment and life of the planet as a whole. A new trend which business cannot afford to ignore is rising over the horizon, born from the damage that human activities led by industry and business have inflicted on the environment. The growing “going green” movement is here and here to stay. Business should therefore embrace this new trend and capatalise on it to advance their corporate interest or risk being knocked down by versatile competitors.

Michael potter, in the Harvard business review: business and the environment states “Managers must start to realize environmental management as an economic and competitive opportunity, not as an annoying cost or an inevitable threat.” Business and trade ethics in the world over are evolving very rapidly, making sound environmental consciousness a significant component for good business management. Yet despite these observations, few companies especially in low income countries like Zimbabwe take this new trend seriously.  However, if business intends to continue to stay vibrant and relevant on a local and especially global scale, environmental considerations should begin to feature consistently in business strategy. 

All businesses place warranted value on financial accountability through regular financial reporting and performance evaluations. In the 21st century, as a result of rising concerns on the pressure being placed on our environment by business, similar value may well be placed on environmental accountability through regular environmental reporting and performance evaluations.   Companies should start developing environmental strategic frameworks which envision a sustainable future. This can be done through consistently analyzing environmental trends and pressures against company activities. Companies can then go on to channel operations into currently acceptable environmental impact levels and start considering the financial potential of greener products and activities.

Given that the environmental consciousness of an organization can set it apart from others, companies may consider the following:
·         Incorporating environmental issues in core business actions (practicing eco-friendly day to day activities, analyzing environmental trends, developing innovative eco-friendly services and products, investing in staff environmental education etc.)
·          Taking stock of company environmental responsibility (how does our activities or products impact the environment?  How can we measure our ecological footprint?  What action can we take to reduce the impacts? )
·         Account for environmental performance (Environmental reporting, monitoring and evaluation)
·         Develop partnerships in tackling environmental challenges among business, government and civil society.

While Zimbabwe may still be in its infancy in developing environmental standards and codes of ethics, individual companies in Zimbabwe should however consider becoming trailblazers in the current “green revolution” through self regulation. Vast benefits can accrue to these environmentally conscious companies. The companies may become “best practice” models in their respective industries and for the business community as a whole. In some instances, new laws and regulations may be modeled after the practices of these trailblazers, thereby ensuring that they stay ahead of the curve and demote competitors to merely playing “catch up”.
Taking the green initiative seriously will help companies demonstrate integrity. As the company operates nationally or globally and interacts with many societies and organisations whose values greatly differ from one location to another, by holding consistent moral and social positions, the company is viewed by key stakeholders as true to their word and principles. This will make them less vulnerable to attack or criticism. Expectations and demands from society often well exceed those of law and policy makers. It’s the everyday citizen who has the most influence on what constitutes current environmental challenge. Ignoring these voices of concern can cause irreparable reputational damage. Those companies that hold themselves to a higher standard, and go beyond compliance will enjoy the most highly regarded reputations. It is companies that go the extra mile that reap the rewards in the court of public opinion. And it is companies that voluntarily raise the bar that often unearth a myriad of commercially interesting business opportunities. Since the environmental question is top of current international agendas and concerns, taking a proactive stance is likely to build a company’s reputation.

One of the outstanding qualities of good businesses is the ability to recognize opportunity. In the 21st century, the environment is one such opportunity. Business should be in tune with the wide range of environmental concerns of the world, and position itself to address them in a way that profits them. The environmental question is bound to be a catalyst of business innovation, will your business be a leading force in this revolution or settle for chasing the rest of the pack?

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Climate change: Roll your sleeves, dig in... get with it!

I support Professor Kees Stigter of Agromet Vision and INSAM who during a Seminar on Agrometeorlogy and sustainable development held in Harare recently stated “We can fight about the causes and impacts but it (climate change) is undeniable, it is a reality.”
Scientists and politicians will continue to bicker over the issue of climate change for years to come. While they do, it is up to us to take time to ascertain what is of essence on this matter and take action.
As a people, we are more inclined to be motivated to action by how we feel about something as opposed to facts and figures. The business as usual attitude will continue to prevail and life will go on as usual for as long as the climate change issue is not brought “home”.
In my humble opinion, (humility is a claim in this instance) climate change has a human face. It is more about people than it is of science, politics, facts or fiction. It is about our families, our friends, and our relationship with them and the world around us.
My conviction is that climate change has the potential to define us, to define our era, and ultimately to determine the legacy we leave for generations to come. As a result, young people hold the future in their hands.
Before we get ahead of ourselves, we need to be sure that we are aware of the changes occurring around us. Do we know what climate change is? How does it affect our lives, the lives of our families and friends and generations to come? Above all, as young people, what can we do?
I humbly (yet another claim of humility!) propose a 3 step action plan for young people who wish to shape the future regarding this critical (without sounding alarmist, of course) issue.
First and foremost, we need to get informed. Trying to make a difference without gaining an in-depth understanding of the matter at hand would be futile. It would be as senseless as pitching up to a nuclear war with spears, slingshots, bows and arrows (no matter how many of these weapons you bring to battle, they are inappropriate). Getting information and gaining an understanding of the climate change issue will ensure that we get involved. Get informed!
Once we have been informed, we need to take action. Most importantly we need to take and lead action. The future belongs to us. As young people we are most at stake (again, without sounding alarmist!). We cannot afford to stand aside and let our future be determined by those who may not be a part of it. We should take a stand for the future we want!
This leads us to the final and equally important pillar of this tri-factor. As young people we need to influence policy and let our voices be heard. While policies are being drafted locally, regionally and globally, how many of us have managed to add our views to the climate change question. It is important that young people get together to discuss and decide on issues which are pertinent to us and to make them the centre of current and future policy decisions. While we may not all get the opportunity to take part in international conferences and events, we can get involved in debates and events which occur on-line. We spend half our time there anyway. Such platforms include Connect4Climate YPARD Green reporters AfricaAdapt and a whole lot others. Join, be heard, start your own... what ever you decide, just be heard!

Monday, March 28, 2011

Sustainable living: Going back to the basics/ Lessons from the past.

Contrary to the notion given off by highly commercialised marketing gimmicks, sustainable living need not cost an arm and a leg. Rather, sustainable living should at the least save us money. The basis of sustainable living is rooted in simplicity and thoughtfulness. In that sense therefore, low income people are in a better position to live sustainably than their more affluent counterparts. Yet, economically and technologically advanced societies with their talk of hybrid cars and nuclear energy would have us believe that drastic adjustments need to be made in the way we live in order to contribute towards a healthier planet. Lessons from our past will attest otherwise.
Let me take you down memory lane to confirm my declaration that lessons in simplicity, thoughtfulness and ultimately sustainable living are found thereof. How many of us remember the days when simply forgetting to switch off your bedroom light or letting the water tap drip would result in serious ramification at the hands of parents? Do we remember the days when every trip to the grocer was made with a recyclable shopping basket or plastic bag? I remember watering the garden only during the early hours of the morning albeit under heavy protest. I also remember the times when the whole family would travel to school, work or church in a single car despite the availability of another vehicle.
These and more actions which were practiced in the past vividly capture the foundations of sustainable living, which incorporate 3 basic principles which are: Reduce, Reuse/Recycle and Save. If we observe these lessons and apply them to our lives today, we will be on our way to a sustainable life.
Let us begin by considering the transport that we use. Three decades ago, being able to drive in Zimbabwe was a status symbol, mainly a preserve of men high up the socio-economic ladder. In this era however, everyone is driving. Gases emitted by cars are one of the biggest contributors to greenhouse gases which are the main cause of global warming. How do we ensure that we reduce the amount of gases emitted by our cars? Since electric cars, hydrogen cars and smart cars are still a long way from becoming trendy in this part of the world, reducing the number of cars on the road and the number of people driving is the most prudent way of cutting down on emissions.
We should begin to consider carpooling to work or to school. If our day involves sitting on a desk or in a class/lecture room, sharing a family car or a friend‘s car is a good way to reduce our carbon footprint (amount of carbon dioxide that we are directly or indirectly responsible for producing and emitting into the earth's atmosphere). Besides, with rising fuel prices and parking costs, it is going to save us a lot of money anyway.
Carpooling may help to improve our interpersonal relationships as well. This drive time can become family time or a time to catch up with friends thereby bringing us closer together. For those of us who drive everywhere including the market or grocery store (which is only 2km away), walking or cycling as alternatives to driving will not only save on greenhouse gas emissions but will contribute to a healthy lifestyle.
We can start to purchase more eco friendly products. Eco friendly products are those which have the least impact on the environment. Back in the day, it was natural to buy eco friendly products although we didn’t necessarily consider this to be a service to the planet. We saved money through buying local produce. What we did not realise is that we were also reducing our carbon footprint by reducing “food miles”. Foreign products don’t only cost more but travel much longer distances to reach us thereby using up more energy and emitting more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
Buying organic foods (foods produced naturally) will also reduce our impact on the environment since other products are likely to be grown with synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. Besides, organic food is much healthier. Choosing to buy energy saving appliances will help to reduce our carbon footprint as well as save us money in the long run. Energy saving bulbs for example use as little as 10kw of power as opposed to the conventional 60 - 100kw and can last up to 6 years. These bulbs will save money on our electricity bill as well as reduce the pressure on our severely compromised national energy generating capacity.
While we strive daily to save money, many of us do not make the connection between resources and finances, forgetting that electric bills and water bills make up a significant portion of monthly expenses. Just because these resources and expenses are necessary, that does not mean they cannot be cut back, or utilised more thoughtfully and effectively. Often times, we act in a wasteful manner, simply out of habit. But habits can be broken.
Saving water and electricity are simple tasks that will not only help promote sustainable living and protect the environment, they can also help reduce our household expenses. We should cut the habit of leaving the water running when brushing our teeth, cleaning dishes, or washing our cars. By simply filling the sink halfway with water, then adding soap, we ensure that no water is lost unnecessarily during dishwashing. When we wash our cars, we could use buckets and turn the hosepipe off. Being conscious of when we choose to water our lawn or garden is also helpful. We should avoid watering during the heat of the day. Watering in the early morning or evening hours is more efficient. Taking showers for shorter periods or using buckets also ensures that we save water.
Thousands of gallons of water are wasted each year, simply because people are too lazy to turn off the tap when doing daily tasks. The beauty of our situation in Zimbabwe is that most of us will find these changes simple to make considering our perennial water shortages. In most cases, we may have already been forced into these sustainable life changes anyway.
Through simple and thoughtful acts like turning the lights off if we are not in the room or taking full advantage of natural light whenever possible by opening curtains during the day, we reduce our energy use and costs.  We should always turn off appliances when not in use. Turning off the T.V, radio and computer and avoiding leaving the phone on the charger over night will significantly reduce the electricity that we use daily.
However, considering the excessive power cuts experienced in Zimbabwe, most of us are usually excited at the opportunity to maximize the few hours that we do have power by switching on every appliance imaginable even those which we do not need. We should try by all means to desist from this behavior. It increases the pressure on our meager energy resources thereby leading to more power cuts and higher electricity bills.
Reducing the amount of waste which we produce and recycling the waste is another important lesson for sustainable living which we can draw from the past. Litter will always find its way into rubbish dumps and landfills. These landfills are one of the major producers of methane, a leading greenhouse gas which contributes to global warming. Collecting newspapers, containers and plastic bags is an effective way of reducing your contribution to global warming. In most cases, there are people, organisations or companies that can make use of what you consider to be rubbish. Most of this material can be recycled into more useful materials like candles (which come in handy during power cuts) or tissues. Some companies may even pay for these materials.
Some of us have clothes which we do not need any more. Instead of throwing these away and generating more waste, give them away. Charitable organisations enable us to freely give away those items which we no longer need or want. Someone can reuse them. Giving items away will reduce the amount of waste we generate and also give us a sense of well being. Using recyclable carrier bags or shopping baskets will also help to reduce the amounts of excess plastic we generate. This will also save us money since plastic bags are now for sale in grocery stores.
Apart from reducing, recycling and saving, we can also take decisive action to restore our natural environment and our planet’s ability to sustain life. One of the most important acts we can engage in is tree planting. The value of trees to our lives can never be overemphasised. While planting a tree is a simple exercise, its value to our lives is immeasurable.  

Trees are the major removers of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. They are therefore one of the most potent weapons against global warming and climate change. Trees also contribute immensely to our health and well being. They remove gaseous pollutants from the atmosphere and produce vital oxygen. Trees clean our water, preserve our soils and cool our environment. The importance of trees is so vast that it would require an entire article. However, in the mean time, why not plant a tree as a symbol of remembering important events in our lives such as birthdays, anniversaries and as a local funeral company would have it, in memory of a departed loved one.
Let us teach one another the simple tips on how to “save” the environment. One person or one generation alone cannot do it. This task needs as many people contributing as possible. Therefore, let us continue the culture of sustainable living through simple acts of thoughtfulness. This will augment and redevelop the basis for a culture that will live for generations to come.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Trees, climate change and health: Part 2

I subscribe to the notion promoted by Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry in the Book “the universe story” where they state that “The well being of the eco system of the planet is a prior condition for the well being of humans. We cannot have well being on a sick planet, not even with our medical science. So long as we continue to generate more toxins than the planet can absorb and transform, the members of the earth community will become ill”. Planting trees is one of the best ways we can ensure a healthy planet for good human health and well being.
I am an advocate of trees because they work every day for all of us to improve our environment, health and quality of life. Trees fight global warming and climate change while consequently improving the quality of our air, protecting our water and saving energy. Planting trees remains one of the cheapest, most effective means of drawing excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Since excessive carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere are the leading cause of human induced climate change, trees become an important tool for mitigating and curbing climate change.  A single mature tree can absorb carbon dioxide at a rate of 21.6 Kgs/year and release enough oxygen back into the atmosphere to support 2 human beings.
In light of high temperatures resulting from global warming, trees have the ability to regulate local temperatures by transpiring water into the lower atmosphere and shading surfaces. By so doing, trees help to reduce the intensity of heat waves thereby reducing the effects of heat waves on the elderly and people with respiratory and cardiovascular disorders. The temperature regulation ability of trees helps reduce the demand on air conditioning in homes and offices thereby reducing pressure on fossil fuel burning for energy. This can be very helpful in Zimbabwe where energy shortages are acute and a significant percentage of our energy comes from coal.
Trees are a possible solution to the pressure exerted by climate change on water availability and quality and therefore health. Trees reduce topsoil erosion thereby preventing harmful land pollutants contained in the soil from getting into wells and open water sources. They use nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium which are by-products of urban living which can pollute water sources. Trees slow down water run-off thus ensuring that water sinks into the ground and our groundwater supplies are continually replenished. This ensures that communities have reliable water supply thereby reducing the risk of hygiene related diseases. The ability of trees to assist water to seep in the ground also helps to avoid the formation of stagnant pools. The incidence of water borne diseases and malaria are thus curbed.
Trees remove gaseous pollutants which contribute to climate change and poor health by absorbing them with normal air components. These gases include sulphur dioxide, ozone and nitrous oxide. Planting trees improves air quality in so doing reducing the risk of exacerbations of respiratory diseases. Trees also have therapeutic value. Planting trees can act as a remedy against the shortcomings of modern life in a world separated from nature. Research has shown that planting trees in different locations creates green spaces which are of value in alleviating stress and depression related to urban living.
For the benefit of our planet and our health, let us all plant trees wherever and whenever we can. It doesn’t cost much but our combined efforts will have a positive domino-effect which will echo for generations to come.

Trees, climate change and health: Part 1

 “The warming of the planet will be gradual, but the effects of extreme weather events (more storms, floods, droughts and heat waves) will be abrupt and acutely felt. Both trends can affect some of the most fundamental determinants of health: air, water, food, shelter and freedom from disease”. This is a statement made by the Director General of the World Health Organisation Dr Margaret Chan during UN led celebrations of the world environment day a couple of years ago. Her statement followed worldwide concerns about the impacts of climate change on the quality of life on the planet.
Coming across this statement only recently, I felt stirred to shed some light on her statement by explaining the relationship between climate change, human health and well being. In the same light, I was challenged put forward my thoughts on how an act as simple as planting a tree can go a long way to alleviate the effects of climate change on people’s health. Since climate change is attributable to unsustainable human exploitation of natural resources, my belief is that human action towards the restoration of the integrity of our natural environment can contribute significantly to alleviating the impact of climate change on human life. I will begin first by explaining the relationship between climate change and health.
The environmental consequences of climate change, both those already observed and those that are anticipated, such as, changes in rainfall resulting in flooding and drought, heat waves, more intense cyclones and storms, and degraded air quality, affect human health and well being both directly and indirectly. Directly through impacts of thermal stress, and death/injury in floods and storms and indirectly through changes in the ranges of disease vectors (e.g. mosquitoes), water-borne pathogens, water quality, air quality, and food availability and quality.
Exposure to heat waves and death or injury from extreme weather is the more common direct impacts of climate change. Although we are in a part of the world (Tropics) where heat exposure is not a noteworthy challenge since we are used to raised temperatures, certain members of our community are less tolerant thereby putting them at risk from increased temperatures. The elderly and those who suffer from cardio-vascular and respiratory disease are less tolerant to high temperatures. This makes them likely to suffer more at the hands of climate change. Floods and cyclones can result in death or serious injuries to people as well. On the other hand, the trauma caused by these events on children may result in prolonged psychological damage. Mental health effects such as depression and anxiety may occur after these extreme events.
Extreme weather events like cyclones, floods and drought also have far reaching indirect effects on people’s health and well being. They result in high temperature, water scarcity and water abundance which are all related to diarrhoeral diseases. After a cyclone or flood-event, rates of diarrhoeal disease, including cholera, may increase, especially in areas where sanitation facilities are poor. Heavy rainfall, even without flooding, may increase rates of diarrhoeal disease as latrines or sewage systems overflow. In Zimbabwe, high density residential areas such as Mbare, Chitungwiza and Tafara/Mabvuku are commonly affected. The cholera outbreak of 2009 bears testimony to this.
Heavy rains lead to increased runoff which may result in the contamination of water sources. Perennial water shortages in Zimbabwe have led to many families making use of wells and other open water sources which are highly prone to contamination as a result of runoff. Water scarcity for personal hygiene and washing of food puts many Zimbabweans at high risk of diarrhoeal diseases and other illnesses related to poor hygiene.
The combination of high temperatures and rainfall resulting from climate change is likely to increase the spatial and temporal distribution of vector borne diseases such as malaria. After an intense rainfall event or a flood event, rates of vector borne diseases such as malaria can increase as mosquitoes breed in stagnant or slow moving pools of water. Viral and bacterial diseases may also increase because virus and bacteria replication rates are sensitive to temperature.
High temperatures and water scarcity can put food harvests at risk while flood events can also destroy harvests. Low food yields may ultimately exacerbate undernutrition and lead to adverse health outcomes (especially physical and mental development of children). As rates of malnutrition increase, populations become more susceptible to other diseases. In Zimbabwe where HIV and AIDS is prevalent, poor nutrition coupled with HIV induced poor immunity levels put a large percentage of the population at risk of death.
Climate change affects temperature, humidity and wind which in turn affect the formation, transportation and dispersion of air pollutants. Climate change may therefore influence pollutant concentrations, which may affect health as air pollution is related to cardio-respiratory health. Exposure to high levels of ground-level ozone, for example, which is formed from the exhaust of transport vehicles, increases the risk of exacerbations of respiratory diseases such as asthma. Respiratory allergies and diseases may become more prevalent because of increased human exposure to pollen (due to altered growing seasons), molds (from extreme or more frequent precipitation), and dust (from droughts).
Addressing the effects of climate change on human health is especially challenging because both the surrounding environment and the decisions that people make influence health. However, given the aforementioned impacts of climate change on health, it is prudent to suggest that activities taken to ensure environmental sustainability and reduce greenhouse gas emission have several potential benefits for health as well.
One of the most gainful and holistic ways of tackling climate change while contributing to public health is through planting trees. While I am in no way suggesting that tree planting or good environmental stewardship can replace the provision of basic services such as primary health care, nutrition programmes, and adequate water supply and sanitation, I believe that completely ignoring the value of a healthy planet on human health and well being is potentially calamitous. I shall elaborate on the value of trees in the fight against climate change and the protection of human health and well being in the coming post.