Past, present and future perspectives


Increasing human vulnerability due to environmental change is a threat to sustainable social, economic and environmental development. Governments and institutions in Africa have adopted various measures in the past 30 years to deal with issues which contribute to environmental change. These have ranged from political and social measures to economic and environmental measures. At the political level, the Organization of African Unity (OAU) spearheaded the decolonization of the region, facilitating independence to many countries and, in so doing, making natural resources more accessible to millions of people. For example, the elimination of apartheid in South Africa in 1994 helped to reduce the marginalization of most of the people to the abundant resources in their own country. As a result of apartheid, the white farmers, who make up only 5 per cent of the population, own 87 per cent of the land (Moyo 2000). The mean amount of land held per person in South Africa is slightly more than 1 ha for blacks and 1 570 ha for whites (SADC Regional Human Development Report 2000). This situation has to change if sustainability is to be achieved. The South African government is committed to buying land and resettling the landless.

Other measures have been adopted to enhance sustainable development and to help to reduce the vulnerability of the population, including: investment in human resources; trade liberalization; review of outdated laws; and strengthening institutions at different levels. Such measures have been supported at national, sub-regional, regional and global levels. In terms of environmental management, together with other regions, African countries have adopted Agenda 21-the blueprint for sustainable development-and various multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs). Box 3.15 outlines some Agenda 21 principles which are relevant to human vulnerability.

Box 3.15 Agenda 21 principles which are relevant to human vulnerability

A number of the principles of Agenda 21 relate to the issue of human vulnerability:

  • Principle 6:The special situation and needs of developing countries, particularly the least developed and those most environmentally vulnerable, shall be given special priority. International actions in the field of environment and development should also address the interests and needs of all countries.
  • Principle 8:To achieve sustainable development and a higher quality of life for all people, states should reduce and eliminate unsustainable patterns of production and consumption and promote appropriate demographic policies.
  • Principle 15: In order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by States according to their capabilities. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.
  • Principle 18: States shall immediately notify other States of any natural disasters or other emergencies that are likely to produce sudden harmful effects on the environment of those States. Every effort shall be made by the international community to help States so afflicted.

The latest initiative adopted by African leaders in 2001 is the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD), whose long-term objective is to 'eradicate poverty ... and to place African countries, both individually and collectively, on a path of sustainable growth and development and thus halt the marginalization of Africa in the globalization process.' Under NEPAD, African political leaders have pledged to work both individually and collectively for peace, security, democracy, good governance, human rights and sound economic management, all of which are the conditions for sustainable development.

The African leaders also recognize that the range of issues necessary to nurture the region's environmental base is vast and complex. They emphasized the need for 'a systematic combination of initiatives to develop a coherent environmental programme ... It is also recognized that a core objective of the (NEPAD) environment initiative must be to help in combating poverty and contributing to socio-economic development in Africa. It has been demonstrated in other parts of the world that measures taken to achieve a healthy environmental base can contribute greatly to employment, social and economic empowerment, and reduction of poverty' (NEPAD 2001).

NEPAD targets a number of areas for action. These include: combating desertification; wetland conservation; global warming; environmental governance; and financing.