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A shared responsibility

The South Africa Environment Outlook report highlights a general lack of understanding of the links between human and environmental health. If ­natural resources are allowed to regenerate to sustain ecosystems, people will benefit.

While people need access to improved services and amenities, they become vulnerable when air and water quality decline, land is degraded and natural resources are over-exploited. Climate change is another risk associated with the present environmental crisis.

People at all levels, from the poorest individual to the politician, need to be educated about the importance of environmental issues and how to deal with them. If ordinary people participated in decision-making, they would have a better understanding of local issues and be in a better position to contribute to national issues.

“Sustainable development must be a shared responsibility,” says the report. “Moving towards sustainability cannot be solely a government responsibility. Civil society, industry and business all have key roles to play if we wish to approach a future of greater sustainability.”

The first steps towards ensuring joint responsibility are environmental education and community awareness campaigns on local, regional and national levels, says the report.

Individuals can get involved by starting volunteer groups in their own areas to respond to environmental issues such as illegal dumping, ­polluted rivers, excessive vehicle emissions and lack of fresh food. Wealthy companies and investors can take action on a different level, upgrading factories to ensure less impact on air and water quality, educating their staff about environmental responsibility and contributing funds to local environmental projects.

While the report states that “more needs to be done to change behaviour so that the actions of every citizen do indeed promote a more sustainable South Africa”, this is often easier said than done. How do you convince a woman living below the breadline who has to fetch her own water and grow her own food that she must no longer use indigenous plants from the veld or that her husband must no longer hunt oribi because they are endangered?

The report recommends concerned individuals assist with the collection of environmental information to contribute to databases in their areas. Scientific data should be translated into layman’s language and distributed through the popular media or other outlets so that it is user-friendly.

How to make a difference

The report suggests the following actions in key environmental areas:

  • Water conservation: individuals can play an active role to conserve water in the home and at work, and to influence others about the importance of doing so. Overuse of water should be reported immediately to local environmental authorities.
  • Climate change: householders can use energy-efficient light bulbs and take public transport instead of travelling alone. Learn about alternative renewable energy sources and buy or build homes that have less impact on the environment. The use of coal for heat should be avoided.
  • Human vulnerability: people need to prepare themselves for the possibility of being vulnerable as a result of environmental stresses. The level of vulnerability is influenced by social support, financial support and education about environmental, social, economic and political factors.
  • Loss of biodiversity and ecosystem functioning: local projects can clear alien plants from waterways and other sensitive areas, such as grasslands, wetlands and forests. Community projects can clear river catchments of waste and ensure that people do not over-fish or over-exploit other resources. Individuals should be encouraged to form or join forums so they can participate in taking action for their environment as decision-makers.

Janis Theron

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