Analysis: NACHILALA NKOMBO
“THE chickens have come home to roost.” This old adage was first used by Robert Southey in 1809 to refer to bad deeds that always come back to haunt the originator.
The cholera outbreak would seem to ring true of this maxim as it appears to have become endemic to some urban areas in Zambia, especially in our capital, Lusaka.
We know that a healthy natural environment is an essential component of community health service provision. Research tells us that one of the projected climate change impacts in tropical regions such as Zambia is not just increased food insecurity but increased cholera incidences.
Our collective protracted inaction in making resilient urban ecosystems a priority measure for sustainable public health service provision is now coming back to haunt us as a nation.
The current cholera outbreak, with its resultant tragic loss of life (over 70 people have died out of the nearly 3,000 who have contracted the disease) is a serious public health concern. In addition, we at the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) consider it a crucial indicator of continued unresolved issues in urban and peri-urban environmental governance. The current situation reminds us that despite Government’s efforts in management of waste and storm water (restoration of drainage and waste water management initiatives), our urban and peri-urban ecosystems are still failing to provide the natural service of decontamination and filtering of water resources. As such, contaminated water has now entered the food chain. Recent reports indicate that as much as 42 percent of tested water sources are contaminated with either faecal coliforms or escherichia coli. It is no wonder that during each rainy season, Lusaka residents’ lives are lost or face death prospects through this contamination.
The recurrent annual cholera outbreaks exemplify the prevailing negative attitudes to the management of natural resources and the natural environment in Zambia, coupled with bad habits in waste disposal and management. Historically, low adherence to or implementation of approved plans and strategies, inadequate waste management, bad attitudes towards the environment and, above all, low environmental law enforcement have been unable to control environmental degradation. The matter is complex and costly but there can be no doubt about its impacts on people and nature.
We are also very mindful that changes in weather conditions, especially rainfall patterns and temperature due to climate change, potentially support favourable conditions for disease outbreaks such as cholera. Against this background, bold and far-reaching measures have to be implemented urgently without complacency by Government and the people to permanently curb this threat to human life and the environment.
While we commend the quick and decisive response Government and partners have taken to address the cholera epidemic, we urge Government, stakeholders and indeed individual citizens to take measures to permanently prevent the disease from having a home in Zambia.
We welcome Government’s position, as reported by Minister of Local Government Vincent Mwale, to do just that as a matter of priority. In this regard, we are available and willing to engage further in realisation of these measures to ensure they are designed and carried out as effectively as possible.
To this effect, we submit the following recommendations for consideration by Government:
• Boost investment in all relevant offices responsible for environmental management and regulating waste management, especially strengthening environmental law enforcement, including prosecution of corporate and individual offenders, revocation of operating licences for offenders, and naming and shaming;
• Enhance promotion of education and awareness about the importance of the environment in general, environmental rights and responsibilities, especially regarding waste management, as it relates to public health. This should include citizens’ constitutional responsibility to protect the environment and the recruitment of honorary environmental inspectors as provided for under section 17 of the Environmental Management Act Number 12 of 2011;
• Invest more in urban planning and enforcement of the plans, and maintenance of healthy urban and peri-urban ecosystems as a measure of disease prevention and public health service provision.
• Develop and implement an urban ecosystems restoration/ protection plan for key cities in Zambia, especially those that are vulnerable, such as Lusaka and Copperbelt, to enhance climate change resilience and mitigate incidences of waterborne diseases such as cholera, typhoid, etc. The plan should target protection of aquifers, restoration of wetlands, forests and streams in the cities. World Wide Fund for Nature is willing to engage further in realisation of this plan and its implementation.
• Develop tangible measures and use appropriate technologies to climate-proof water and sewerage systems in urban centres across Zambia, considering that climate change impacts are likely to make cholera and other waterborne disease outbreaks common and severe if such measures are not in place.
• Restore, rehabilitate and/or reclaim urban ecosystems such as forests, wetlands, streams and green spaces which will also include creation of artificial ones not only for aesthetic reasons but also for environmental reasons;
• Ban plastic packaging. Although there is no direct link to cholera, abuse of plastics or poor disposal blocks drainages, which causes water to be stagnant. This improves conditions for diseases such as cholera.
The cholera outbreak is a stark reminder that the well-being of the environment is closely linked to our well-being. The environment is not as low priority as we have taken it. It is our economy; our life, our future and, therefore, a high priority for action within and outside government, and across ministries. Lack of bold action, as stated above, means Lusaka will continue to face the existential threat – thanks to the current home created for cholera.
The author is the country director of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) Zambia (wwfzambia.org.zm) and the High Level Malabo Montpellier Panel (www. mamopanel.org)