By Claire Ireland, Senior Environment Specialist, AusAID
Collective action towards protecting the environment has a powerful impact, and the possibilities to make a difference are endless.
Today, people around the world will be celebrating World Environment Day in a multitude of ways. Colleagues have told me about a variety of plans—riding to work; making a special effort to recycle or switch off lights when not needed; or getting outside to join in community tree planting events.
For Faith Nyati in Zimbabwe, her day will be very different. She and her daughter Ellen will be up at 5am to collect water for the day. They will queue for up to an hour, depending what time they arrive at the communal well. After breakfast, Ellen’s older brother will go off to school but Ellen will stay behind to help their mother collect firewood—roughly a two-hour task. Faith says it didn’t always take so long but firewood is becoming scarce and the trees aren’t as plentiful as they used to be. Once the firewood is collected, they’ll head to a small plot of land to prepare it in the hope that the rains will come and their crops will grow. Ellen says she would like to go to school but helping out at home is more important. The family need water, firewood and food before she can get an education, she tells me.
I met Faith and Ellen in 2009 when they were queuing for food rations. The rains had failed to come and their crops had not grown. An estimated 6.9 million people received international food aid at the height of Zimbabwe’s ‘hunger season’ that year.
When the rains don’t come and crops fail to grow, Australia’s humanitarian assistance program can be a lifeline for families like Faith and Ellen. But they are just two of an estimated 500 million people in Africa who depend on subsistence agriculture for their daily food intake. Their story is typical of the many I have heard from people across Africa, Asia and the Pacific. For families like these, the environment is not simply something to be preserved for future generations—it is something that matters today.
The environment underpins economic prosperity in many developing countries. The World Bank report ‘The Changing Wealth of Nations’ highlights that the natural environment accounts for 30 per cent of the wealth of least developed countries. Tending to the wealth of the environment to support economic growth and to help reduce poverty presents a big opportunity.
Yet economic growth on its own is not enough, the quality of growth matters too. The World Health Organization says that better environmental management could prevent 40 per cent of deaths from malaria, 41 per cent of deaths from lower respiratory infections, and 94 per cent of deaths from diarrhoeal disease—three of the world’s biggest childhood killers.
The Australian Government takes environmental management in its aid program seriously and we are mindful of ensuring our programs do not have adverse environmental impacts. Through the aid program, Australia helps build healthy sustainable communities, improves livelihoods through sustainable resource management and helps build community resilience.
In just over two weeks’ time, world leaders will come together at the Rio+ 20 Conference in Brazil to assess progress on achieving sustainable development over the last twenty years. The Little Green Data Book recently released by the World Bank outlines some of this progress and highlights the many environmental challenges we still face.
Sustainable development is a key priority of all the governments who will be meeting in Rio. But the challenges remain enormous. Ensuring the outcomes of Rio+20 benefit people like Faith and Ellen has to be at the heart of our discussions.
In a recent blog post by Gro Harlem Brundtland and Fernando Henrique Cardoso, they challenged us to have courage and vision to drive forward a sustainable future for the world. We should embrace this challenge. I believe we all have a responsibility to help safeguard our planet for future generations, but also so that the world’s poor do not fall further into poverty.
World Environment Day matters to all of us. Let’s not wait until it’s too late for us to take part. Every positive environmental action has an impact, so today I will be setting up a food compost at home with the children. It a small start, but to think global you need to act local. What will you be doing?
About the author: Claire Ireland
Claire is AusAID’s Senior Environment Specialist, responsible for the technical oversight of the environment in the Australian aid program. Claire is an environment and development specialist with a broad range of experience in the environment and natural resource sectors including, community based natural resource management,
environmental management systems, safeguards, aid effectiveness and linking local and global environmental perspectives to poverty reduction programs. She has lived and worked in Africa and has experience in a range of country contexts across Africa, Asia and the Pacific.