Harnessing Africa’s vast potential

6 July 2006

Poverty in Africa can be made history if the region’s wealth of natural resources is effectively harnessed, according to a new United Nations report.

The Africa Environment Outlook 2, released by the UN Environment Programme (Unep) in June, takes a comprehensive look at the potential, problems and long-term scenarios facing Africa’s development and environment.

“The report challenges the myth that Africa is poor,” Achim Steiner, Unep executive director, said at the launch of document.

“Indeed, it points out that its vast natural wealth can, if sensitively, sustainably and creatively managed, be the basis for an African renaissance – a renaissance that meets and goes beyond the internationally agreed Millennium Development Goals.”

Untapped potential
From freshwaters to forests, minerals and the marine environment, Africa is only realising a fraction of its nature-based economic potential, the AEO-2 says.

Tourism based on nature and cultural sites, for one, presents a huge but untapped opportunity. “Africa has numerous tourist attractions, yet it contributes only 4% annually to the multibillion-dollar global tourism industry,” the report says.

It also points out that Africa is a “mining giant”, producing nearly 80% of the world’s platinum, over 40% of the globe’s diamonds and more than a fifth of its gold and cobalt. “Yet its industrial base is insignificant.”

The report also overturns the popular view that Africa is short of water. Rather, too little of the resource is properly utilised for irrigation, drinking water and power generation.

At close to 4 000 cubic kilometres per year, Africa’s renewable freshwater is about 10% of the global resource – closely matching the continent’s share of the world population. Yet in 2005 only about 5% of its development potential was used for industry, tourism and hydropower.

The report argues that, with mineral, forest and other products, there is a pressing need to “add value to natural resources”.

“There is a need for Africa to move from being a major exporter of primary resources to being one with a vibrant industrial and manufacturing base.”

Stark choices
The potential is there, but political will is required to harness it for development, the report says.

“But this is not inevitable,” Steiner said at the launch, “and, as the AE0-2 points out, African nations face stark choices.”

Problems identified as in need of urgent action include rapid rates of deforestation, high levels of land degradation, wasteful water use in agriculture, and climate change.

New challenges are genetically modified organisms and the costs of alien invasive species, and the switch of chemical manufacturing from the developed to the developing world.

But many African states now acknowledge environmental protection as essential to their future prosperity, the report says. Countries are becoming party to a range of international environment treaties and cooperative agreements, incorporating environmental concerns into poverty reduction strategies, and using market mechanisms such as tax to protect natural resources.

“Governments are signalling an increased willingness to cooperate and to engage over a wide range of pressing regional and global issues,” Steiner said.

“The economic importance of the environment is increasingly recognised by Africa’s leaders as an instrument for development, for livelihoods, for peace and for stability. I sincerely believe we have a real opportunity to take this impetus a long way.”

The new attitude to the environment is seen as a result of unified development initiatives, in particular the African Union and the New Partnership for Africa’s Development.

“The dawn of the 21st century stands out as the beginning of a renaissance for Africa – politically, economically and environmentally,” the authors say.

“The formation of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development marked a turning point and a renewed commitment to adopting policies and systems that allow Africa to prosper.”

SouthAfrica.info reporter

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