The future of the environment beyond COVID-19
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As Zimbabwe marks 40 years of independence environmentalists and the rest of the citizens need to take stock of the strides that the country has made in taking care of the environment. Over the last decades, the country has made commendable efforts to preserve the environment for generations to come and this is a task that Zimbabwe must undertake together with the rest of the world to build a green future anchored on innovation and clean energy. It is always difficult for countries in the global south like Zimbabwe to fully seize themselves with the issues of looking to the future on environmental issues based on the reality that the global south contributes very little to the results of climate change and global warming today. Yet it is precisely on that basis that (governments and citizens) must take responsibility and realise that Africa has suffered severely from climate change despite the argument that much damage to the environment has mainly been caused by countries in the global north such as China, the USA and other developed economies. The changing weather patterns, droughts and disease affecting people and livestock, the degradation in mining communities must indeed make us take a deep breath and ask if we have served the environment as much as we expect it to serve us.
Zimbabwe signed up for sustainable development in 2000 to meet the demands of the present generation while preserving the needs of future generations. In the 2013 Zimbabwe managed to include environmental rights in the constitution (Constitution of Zimbabwe Amendment No 20; Act 2013; sect 73). These rights were absent in the previous constitution but where outlined in the Environmental Management Act chapter 20;27 of 2002. The inclusion was a positive move as the constitutional protection of environmental rights is one of the key strategies towards achieving sustainable development and environmental protection in developing countries. Because of these rights, the country has seen the emergence of many environmental advocating bodies such as Environmental Management Agency (EMA), ZERO, Zimbabwe Environmental Lawyers Association (ZELA), CNRG, Friends for the environment and many others that have helped strengthen the cause for environmental protection through raising awareness and stakeholder participation in environmental impact assessments. The Environmental Management Agency under the Zimbabwean governed has over the years improved on environmental regulations and monitoring and implementation of environmental law.
With over 90% of Zimbabwe’s population unemployed, many have turned to illegal mining causing vast land degradation to earn a living to feed and provide essentials for their families. The country moreover is currently suffering from rapid deforestation as people turn to firewood as an alternative source of energy as the government has failed to keep power running. The lack of clean drinkable water has seen the emergence of waterborne disease as many now dig unprotected wells to provide water for their homes. many of the industries still operating currently in Zimbabwe are operating without adoption for clean technology, as a means to keep production running and to survive the failing economy. And they continue to do so without facing the heavy hand of the law. The success of the environmental rights is centred on variables; social, economic, cultural and political context, good governance, the rule of law as well as the effective implementation and enforcement of environmental laws. And because the country failed to integrate these variables, the environment has suffered. In a nutshell, Zimbabwe’s environmental progress is tied to the economic, political and socio performance of the country. Zimbabwe’s progress or lack thereof is not in isolation, the world at large has moved in leaps and bounds. In the context of the Covid-19, a lot of questions arise, as to what we have done globally to cut back on our negative activities to the environment and more importantly What is to be done?
These questions are critical to take stock of for ourselves as we raise our voices for the world particularly the big economies to take more responsibilities in cutting down on emissions and promote clean technologies.
As fate would have it, Zimbabwe turns 40 at a time when the world is fighting to stay alive against the coronavirus pandemic. Reports of people in India being able to see the Himalayan mountain range in decades for the first time from miles and miles away, as the environment cleans itself from the pollution that has devastated it, have sent some smiles even in these tough times. I, therefore, took this opportunity to instead not focus just on Zimbabwe and the environment at 40 rather the Covid-19 and the environment.
This paper seeks to critically analyse the link and impact of this disease on the environment. According to the World Economic Forum Covid-19 is as a result of recombination between two pre-existing viruses. The origins of these viruses though not certain are believed to be from bats and or pangolins. The European Centre for Disease Control and Prevention states the virus undoubtedly originated from wild animals particularly bats. In this regard, it stands to the fact that humans have over the years gone beyond limits in interfering with wildlife and nature. Be it meat markets in China where the virus is believed to have rooted, illegal global animal trade world wild, human deforestation or habitation of wetlands; humans have undeniably failed to respect environmental boundaries and have continued to evade natural resources that have in the end left humans more vulnerable with deadly viruses spilling over into human life. Viruses that have caused serious infectious diseases such as EBOLA from monkeys and chimpanzees, Bird Flu form birds, MERS from camels and SARS from civet cats; all have originated from the Animal Kingdom and have killed many people across the globe over the years. It is no doubt that if humans continue to encroach into nature wildlife and not heed to the voice of environmental protection laws, many alike diseases such as coronavirus will continue to erupt and cause devastating effects that the world will take a long time to heal from.
On a brighter note though not sustainable way, COVID-19 has seen a positive impact on the environment. In a bid to slow or combat the spread of this virus many countries have gone under lockdowns; this has resulted in a significant drop in greenhouse gas pollution in the air. As part of the lockdown regulation, many industries have temporarily halted production with a coal usage falling by over 40% and carbon emissions reduced by 50%. As flights have been cancelled while limited automobiles are on the road, transport air pollution has significantly reduced. Satellites have since shown nitrogen dioxide fading over most of Europe. Reduction in greenhouse gas emissions has directly resulted in a notable improvement in air quality translating into better respiratory health for humans. According to China’s Ministry of Ecology and Environment data recorded between January and March 2020 reflect an 84,5% increase in days with good air quality. Although this might be short-lived, it serves as a remarkable highlight on how human behavioural change on environmental protection can be a positive move to improve today's human health and that of the future generation. It is of great concern though that as the lockdown comes to an end, all the industries will be scrambling to resume production and that may result in an even higher level of pollution than ever seen before. This will, in turn, result in a force opposite to the much-anticipated drive towards a de-carbonized sustainable economy that many environmental bodies have been advocating for.
On top of that, the drop in economic growth as industries close will surely result in many countries failing to achieve Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Realistic environmental sustainability can only be achieved when all the three pillars of sustainable development; economic, social and environmental pillars are at balance. However, in struggling economies like Zimbabwe, many countries will find it difficult to meet their target for SDGs. With increased poverty levels and failed human development, a country is bound to forgo all environmental protection moves and put all its weight on the environment to survive.
Furthermore, as countries try to contain the spread of COVID-19, the lockdowns have resulted in the accumulation of waste, which can also be a great cause for health concern if diseases end up erupting from it. Recycling which is a major waste management technique that has since been successful in reducing waste pollution has greatly been affected. Teams of people engaging in the household separation of domestic waste in places like South Africa have since been stopped from going out during the lockdown period and unseparated waste has ended up in garbage disposal sites in hips of plastic which is not biodegradable. This is a massive drawback in environmental management plans that have since been a success all along.
In Zimbabwe’s informalized economy, the lockdown has not been a huge success. Many families are living in abject poverty with hunger and starvation taking a toll as many Zimbabweans are struggling to survive.
This pandemic leaves us with so much uncertainty for the future. Some hard questions that may have to be posed are: Has coronavirus caused irreparable damage to human safety? Will human interactions ever be the same after the epidemic has passed? Will the issue of social distancing be a thing of the past or it will continue to grip the human race through the years and create a human phobia for group interactions? Will people ever feel safe to travel to overseas countries without the fear of contracting an infectious disease? How will those that have been infected with the disease deal with the stigmatisation? Will they be allowed back in social circles, or the scar of COVID-19 will continue to haunt them and keep them in isolation. To what extent will these lockdowns affect the mental health of people.
COVID-19 has come as a red flag from mother nature. As we prepare for the post Covid-19 crisis there is a need to rethink a new economy anchored on taking care of nature, green and clean technologies. Years and years of encroaching into the natural habitats have brought humans closer to the wild in ways that have made man so vulnerable to a host of diseases. Thus, without taking a step back on our actions, more and more pandemics will be with us. We must let the wild be the wild because nature is critical to our survival. COVID-19 should serve as a warning to every human being that what we exert on nature can boomerang as a catastrophe that will be costly to human survival. It is high time people work together to protect the environment and improve on reducing environmental degrading activities. Together we can beat this, together we can create a better healthier future.
Letwin Mafukidze is a Zimbabwean environmentalist based in Johannesburg. She writes in her capacity and can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org