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Human Rights Month: how to ensure a healthy environment for all

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Picture: ANA File Research has shown how Eskom’s coal-fired power stations cause 2,239 deaths per year. As air pollution poses risks to the health and well-being of its citizens, it is crucial for South Africa to take action to ensure a healthy environment for its people, the writer says.

By Dominic Naidoo

On July 28, 2022, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a landmark resolution recognising the human right to a healthy environment.

The resolution, which followed recognition of the right by the Human Rights Council (HRC) in October 2017, was an unprecedented decision, adopted with unparalleled support of 161 member states.

This resolution sends a powerful message that there is widespread, worldwide support for this right, which is already recognised in 156 countries at the national and regional levels, including South Africa.

In light of March being Human Rights month in South Africa, I have looked at the ways that we can ensure a safe and healthy natural environment for both humans and wildlife.

South Africa is a country with a diverse natural environment, including mountains, oceans, forests, and deserts. However, its environment faces numerous challenges, including pollution, deforestation, land degradation, and climate change.

These environmental problems not only threaten the country’s natural resources but also pose risks to the health and well-being of its citizens, it is crucial for South Africa to take action to ensure a healthy environment for its people.

One of the most significant environmental problems facing South Africa is air pollution. According to a report by the World Health Organisation (WHO), air pollution is responsible for over 20,000 premature deaths in SA annually.

Industrial activities, vehicle emissions, and burning of fossil fuels are some of the main sources of air pollution. To address this issue, the government needs to take a more proactive approach, such as enforcing stricter emissions standards for vehicles and industries, promoting the use of renewable energy sources, and increasing public awareness about the health risks of air pollution.

Air pollution from power stations is a major environmental and social problem, and it poses significant risks to human health and the environment. Eskom’s power stations are responsible for a large portion of the country’s air pollution, emitting harmful pollutants such as sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and particulate matter.

One of the most effective ways to reduce air pollution from power stations is to shift towards cleaner and more sustainable energy sources, such as renewable energy, of which we have significant potential for, particularly in solar and wind power.

The government can encourage investment in renewable energy by providing incentives, such as tax breaks, subsidies, and feed-in tariffs, which would make it more financially viable for companies to invest in clean energy.

Additionally, the government can promote the use of clean energy in the public sector by installing solar panels on government buildings or investing in electric buses for public transportation.

Another way to reduce air pollution from power stations is to improve their operational efficiency. This can be achieved through the implementation of stricter emissions standards and the use of modern technologies such as scrubbers and selective catalytic reduction (SCR) systems.

These technologies can significantly reduce emissions of sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and other pollutants. However, the implementation of these technologies can be costly, and it may require significant investment from power companies.

The government can incentivise the implementation of these technologies through tax breaks, subsidies, and other financial incentives.

Another effective approach to reducing air pollution from power stations is to shift towards natural gas as a primary source of energy. Natural gas is a cleaner-burning fossil fuel than coal and emits fewer pollutants.

South Africa has significant natural gas reserves, particularly offshore, and the government can encourage the development of natural gas infrastructure, such as pipelines and liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminals.

This would require significant investment from the government and private companies, but it could significantly reduce air pollution from power stations.

The government can implement policies to encourage energy efficiency and reduce energy demand.

This can be achieved through the implementation of energy efficiency standards for buildings and appliances, as well as through public awareness campaigns and incentives for energy-efficient behaviour.

By reducing energy demand, the government can reduce the need for power stations and, consequently, reduce air pollution.

Another environmental problem that South Africa faces is deforestation. The country has lost a significant portion of its natural forest cover due to logging, agriculture, and urbanisation. Deforestation not only destroys the habitats of wildlife but also contributes to soil erosion, water pollution, and climate change.

To tackle this issue, we need to implement policies to protect forests, such as creating protected areas, enforcing laws against illegal logging and land clearing, and promoting sustainable forest management practices.

Additionally, the government should provide incentives for communities to participate in reforestation programmes, such as offering financial support or land tenure rights.

Water pollution is another environmental challenge that South Africa faces. The country’s water resources are under pressure from agricultural run-off, industrial discharges, and inadequate sanitation systems.

Water pollution not only affects the health of aquatic ecosystems but also poses risks to human health, such as waterborne diseases. To address this issue, the government needs to implement stricter regulations for industries and agriculture, such as mandatory wastewater treatment and monitoring programmes.

Increased investment in infrastructure to improve sanitation in urban and rural areas and promote water conservation measures, such as rainwater harvesting, will also reduce the burden on public water utilities.

Climate change is a global environmental challenge that has significant impacts on South Africa’s economy, natural resources, and human health.

We may not experience cyclones or earthquakes but we’re still vulnerable to droughts, floods, and other extreme weather events, which can cause crop failures, loss of property, and human displacement.

To address climate change, the government needs to take a comprehensive approach, including reducing greenhouse gas emissions, adapting to the impacts of climate change, and promoting sustainable development.

For starters, we can achieve a vast majority of this through investing in renewable energy sources, promoting energy efficiency, and implementing policies to reduce deforestation and land degradation.

South Africa faces numerous environmental challenges that pose risks to the health and well-being of its citizens.

The government needs to take a more proactive approach to address these challenges, such as enforcing stricter regulations for industries and agriculture, promoting renewable energy, protecting forests, improving sanitation, and investing in climate adaptation measures.

Public awareness campaigns and community participation can help to foster a culture of environmental stewardship and sustainability. By taking these steps, we can ensure a healthy environment for our people and protect our natural resources for future generations.

Dominic Naidoo is an environment activist and a writer

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