Environmental Health in Developing Countries: An Overview of the Problems and Capacities

By Gopalan, Hiremagalur N. B. | Environmental Health Perspectives, July 2003 | Go to article overview

Environmental Health in Developing Countries: An Overview of the Problems and Capacities


Gopalan, Hiremagalur N. B., Environmental Health Perspectives


Human health and environmental health are intimately intertwined. The existence of clean air, clean Water, a stable climate, thriving wildlife, and well-managed natural resources determines the extent to which people can enjoy their basic rights to life, health, food, housing, livelihood, and culture.

Although humans have been aware of the crucial relationship between human health and the environment for millennia, there still is a tendency to separate health and environmental issues and deal with them independently. To protect the environment, promote human health, and practice sustainable development, this attitude must be changed.

Environmental health has received considerable political recognition since the 1972 Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment, which created the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). Health impacts of environmental degradation figured prominently in several chapters of Agenda 21 (United Nations 1993) adapted in 1992 at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development. Several meetings of European ministers of environment and health have resulted in considerable improvements in the interaction among their ministries. A meeting of the health and environment ministers of the Americas was held in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, 4-5 March 2002, and a similar meeting of the environment and health ministers of African countries is being planned for 2004. At the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) held in Johannesburg, South Africa, 26 August-4 September 2002, the Member States of the United Nations adopted the WEHAB (water, energy, health, agriculture, and biodiversity) Agenda (WSSD 2002). The WEHAB health agenda suggests many issues that must be addressed, including environmental health issues and the need for intersectoral cooperation, more information, capacity-building, and more financial resources.

The New Partnership for Africa's Development has several environmental and health goals in its action plan. Further, many multilateral environmental agreements, such as the Montreal Protocol (UNEP Ozone Secretariat 2000), the POPs (Persistent Organic Pollutants) Convention (UNEP, Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee 2001), and the PIC Convention [Prior Informed Consent (Rotterdam Convention 1998)], are health-related. Many countries, particularly in Europe, are developing national environmental health action plans and local environmental health action plans.

Despite the surge in international, regional, national, and local recognition of the link between the environment and human health, the burden of disease in developing countries is increasing. At the WSSD, Canada, with the support of the World Health Organization (WHO) and the UNEP, proposed the Health and Environment Linkages Initiative (UNEP 2002). This initiative now being implemented by the WHO and the UNEP, with the support of Canada, seeks to build capacity for more effective policy responses through consolidation of the knowledge base, development of strategies for intersectoral cooperation, and capacity building. The initiative will be completed by a multidisciplinary international group of experts from both developed and developing countries.

An estimated 25% of all preventable illness is caused by environmental factors. In Africa, the environmental contribution is even higher, with approximately 35% of the burden of disease due to environmental factors (UNEP, United Nations Children's Fund, WHO 2002). Wastewater is treated in less than 35% of cities in the developing world, and between one-third and one-half of the solid wastes generated within most cities in low- and middle-income countries are not collected. Approximately 3.5-5 million cases of acute pesticide poisonings occur each year. Every year, over 5 million children 0-14 years of age die, mainly in the developing world, from diseases related to the environment, such as malaria, dengue, acute respiratory infections, and diarrhea. …

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