Africa can see strong economic growth by making better use of the environment, according to proponents of a green economy. It’s one of the subjects being discussed at the World Water Week conference in Stockholm.
“A green economy is essentially an economy that really invests in looking after the environment by putting money into the environment. The work is revealing. In fact, you can have faster economic growth and development,” said Professor Mike Young, executive director of the Environment Institute at the University of Adelaide in Australia. Young is also writing the chapter on water for a U.N. Environmental Program report on the green economy.
Investment would be accompanied by policy and government reforms. “So the gains are sustained and last into the future,” he said.
Young believes the components of a green economy could be quickly applied on the continent.
“First by understanding, particularly in the case of water, that getting water management right and investing in processes that give people access to water at affordable costs,” he said, “adding, “The costs of not having access to clean water are incredibly high.”
Easy access to water allows more time and money to be spent on other things.
“In much of Africa, people spend a lot of money buying water from people who cart it to them," said Young. "Others spend a lot of time walking to cart water backwards and forwards and just queuing to get access to water. That’s one half. The second half is because, in fact, the standards of water are so poor in many areas a lot of people get sick and people also die. Reversing that means that people have access to more dollars to spend on other things and more time they can put into things that contribute to economic growth and development. Water is basic. Getting it right is really important.”
Step by step
Implementing a green economy means getting down to the very basic levels of water management.
“You really have to take it partly country by country in terms of the policy reforms, but secondly, doing it catchment by catchment and essentially river by river and ground water supply by ground water supply, working locally building the institutional arrangements that make sure that opportunities are sustained,” Young said.
Ultimately, people do pay the full cost of having water supplied to them.
“So they’re aware of how valuable water is. But the costs are much lower than they are at the moment because you’re managing things efficiently and well,” he said. For example, using gravity to move water is a free energy source, while pumping water can be very expensive.
According to his research, a green economy could help Africa withstand global recessions, like the current economic downturn.
“Very much so. The modeling we’re doing shows that if you go down a green approach and put money into water, into forestry and agriculture first, then you get faster economic growth and the number of people living in water-stressed regions is much lower. So you get win-win results – faster growth, less stress and greater opportunities,” he said.
Calls for a green-based economy are not always welcomed by some mainstream economists, at least not initially, according to Young.
“Very difficult at first,” he said, “We’re dealing with things that have not been well administered in the past. If you look once again at water, we haven’t invested in the institutions that assign rights to people or to regions and development government arrangements, which do simple things like make sure that whenever you allow one person to take more water in areas that are already fully allocated, you first of all work out who’s going to take less water.”
He said it’s vital to have institutions that work on local, regional and national levels. World Water Week is sponsored by the Stockholm International Water Institute.