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Chapter Two: The State of the Environment - Africa

Social and economic background

Africa has undergone major social, economic and political transformations. At the turn of the 20th century, the total population was only 118 million, 7.4 per cent of the world population. In the following 50 years, the population grew slowly, as high fertility rates were offset by high death rates due to poor health conditions, infectious diseases, civil wars and the struggle against colonialism. When mortality rates began to decline sharply from the 1950s onwards, due to improved health conditions associated with economic development, there was a dramatic population increase. By 1997, the population was estimated at 778.5 million, more than 13 per cent of the world population (United Nations Population Division 1996). It is projected that by the year 2025, the population in Africa will almost double to 1 453 million, representing about 18 per cent of the projected world population (United Nations Population Division 1996).


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Source: compiled by UNEP GRID Geneva from United Nations Population Division 1996

Although Africa has more than 13 per cent of the world population, population densities in most of the region are low compared to those in other parts of the world

Despite such rapid population growth, Africa remains under-populated: its population density of 249 per 1 000 hectares is low compared to the world average of 442 or the 1 130 found in Asia (WRI, UNEP, UNDP and WB 1998). However, wide variations of population density occur within and between countries. Mauritius has the highest population density in Africa, at 5 562 per 1 000 hectares, while Namibia's 19 people per 1 000 hectares is the lowest (WRI, UNEP, UNDP and WB 1998).

Fertility rates in Africa are projected to decline from 6.5 during 1975-80 to 5.3 during 1995-2000 (WRI, UNEP, UNDP and WB 1998). Western and Central Africa has the highest fertility rate of 6.6, while Southern and Northern Africa have the lowest rates of 4.1 and 4.2, respectively. Epidemic diseases have had a serious impact on the African population. In recent years, HIV/AIDS has become one of the major causes of death. In 1996, about 14 million people in sub-Saharan Africa had HIV/AIDS, about 64 per cent of the worldwide total (AIDS Analysis Africa 1996).

Poverty and environmental degradation 'are linked in a vicious circle in which people cannot afford to take proper care of the environment' (SARDC, IUCN and SADC 1994). Poverty has been and remains a major cause and consequence of environmental degradation and resource depletion. Currently almost 40 per cent of people in sub-Saharan Africa live below the poverty line, and both income poverty and human poverty are increasing (UNDP 1997). According to current projections, Africa is the only continent on which poverty is expected to rise during the next century (UNDP 1998).

The human condition in Africa remains as daunting as ever. Of 45 countries on the UN list of Low Human Development Indicators, 35 are in Africa (UNDP 1997). Reducing poverty and improving human development are major challenges for the continent.

 GDP per capita

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Source: compiled by RIVM, the Netherlands, from World Bank and UN data

Although per capita GDP has been declining in most African countries since 1980, there have been some signs of economic recovery since 1995

Although the 1980s were considered a 'lost' decade for both economic and environmental improvement in Africa (UNEP 1991), with either negative or sluggish economic growth, there have been signs of economic recovery since the mid-1990s. In 1996, GDP grew by 4-5 per cent for the second year in a row, higher than population growth, and nearly three-quarters of sub-Saharan countries had more than 3 per cent growth (GCA 1997). Rates, however, varied from -15.4 per cent in Burundi to 37.3 per cent in Equatorial Guinea and 16.1 per cent in Malawi (UNECA 1997). This overall good performance, in every sub-region except Western and Central Africa, was the result of better weather, a more favourable international environment and improved macroeconomic policies. Agriculture was a notable contributing factor to higher growth (GCA 1997).

During the 1980s and 1990s, many countries embarked on economic reform through structural adjustment programmes. While economic liberalization may have helped fuel economic recovery, there are indications that economic growth will worsen rather than improve environmental conditions. For this reason there is no substitute for explicit environmental policy actions (WRI, UNEP, UNDP and WB 1996).

The debt burden has been a major constraint for many nations, which have had to spend more on servicing their debt than providing basic social services. In 1997, Africa's total debt stock stood at US$349 000 million, or 67.5 per cent of GDP, with a debt service ratio of 21.3 per cent of exports plus remittances (UNECA 1998). External debt varies widely. For example, Nigeria, Côte d'Ivoire, the Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Angola account for nearly half the debt for sub-Saharan Africa (United Nations 1996). Although the debt issue is being addressed by the international community, the relief will be selective and will take a number of years to have effect (UNDP 1997).

Africa's share in world trade is small and is shrinking due to fierce competition from other regions, which enjoy faster and more sustained economic growth. In 1995, the continent's terms of trade had fallen to 89 per cent of the 1987 baseline index (GCA 1997). Nevertheless, exports and imports significantly influence the regional economy, with exports alone accounting for 25 per cent of the regional GDP and imports providing 20 per cent of the domestic supply. Imports have increased from US$91 600 million in 1990 to US$125 200 million in 1996, making Africa one of the most open regions in the world (UNECA 1997).

Although considerable improvements have been made in reducing political instability and civil unrest, which are themselves a manifestation of intense competition for declining opportunities and resources, much more needs to be done to attain and sustain socio-economic growth, durable peace and equitable income distribution. There are now strong signs of a return to peace and security, and progress towards democratic governance and popular participation. Civil wars in Angola, the Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo have still to be resolved. Resettlement and reconstruction are still slow in countries such as Burundi, Liberia, Rwanda and Somalia. Another predicament relates to refugees and other displaced persons (see box right). Most African countries have generously shared their limited resources with refugees, at times to the detriment of the environment.

Growing fiscal constraints and competition for ever-dwindling public resources have seen the environment being sacrificed in terms of budgetary allocations for the more pressing demands of health and education. As a result, donor funding is sustaining most environmental management programmes.

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