The East African Community (EAC) is now one of the regions with world’s fastest growing population exacerbating problems of ill health, poverty, environmental degradation, unemployment and declining agricultural productivity.
The latest United Nation’s World Population Prospects report — which has data covering up to 2015 — indicates that Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania are among the 33 countries whose population is projected to increase at least five-fold by 2100.
The EAC has a population of about 150 million people with land area of 1.82 million square kilometres and a combined gross domestic product of Sh7.4 trillion ($74.5 billion).
Africa’s population is currently estimated to be 1.4 billion while the world’s is at seven billion.
In the region, about 60 per cent of pollution related deaths are due to contaminated water or poor hygiene, 40 per cent due to indoor air pollution and one per cent due to outdoor air pollution, according to another UN World Population Prospects Report released four years earlier.
The bloc — comprising Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and Tanzania — is endowed with many resources and income earners majorly from agriculture and livestock production, fisheries, mining, wildlife and tourism.
Rapid population growth has strained the countries’ budgets and ability to cater for the basic human rights including nutrition, health services, clean water and environment.
“Despite potentially grave consequences, demographic changes usually do not take centre stage in many macroeconomic policy discussions or debates,” states a 2014 World Bank report dubbed ‘Impact of Demographic Changes on Inflation and the Macro-economy’.
“Demographic changes are one of the most crucial long-term challenges that will have a grave influence on the economy….using a regression analysis, this paper found that population growth affects real economic variables on the negative side,” says the report.
Ms Jesca Eriyo, the deputy secretary-general of the EAC, says the factors leading to high population were related to high fertility due to good environment and plenty of food.
“If we don’t control the number of children we are giving birth to, poverty levels will grow. This requires re-alignment of policies, processes and systems and sharing of resources for coordinated actions,” she said during the 2015 Sectoral Council of Ministers meeting for Lake Victoria Basin Council in Kisumu recently.
She added that it was also life threatening for a woman to give birth to more than eight children.
Dr Ali-Said Matano, an environmentalist, says the growing population influences demand for natural resources and services as well as pile considerable amount of pressure resulting from unsustainable consumption patterns.
Changing human habitation patterns, overgrazing, bio piracy, deforestation, pollution, unsustainable exploitation of natural resources and introduction of invasive as well as alien species are some of the changing environmental characteristics that are associated with extremely negative impacts of climate change.
“Against Africa’s annual growth rate is at of 4.8 per cent, EAC’s growth rate of six per cent is overburdening its resources. It would be intense in future if not controlled,” says Dr Matano who is the executive secretary of the Lake Victoria Commission, an institution that oversees developments in the lake region on behalf of riparian states.
United Nations Environment Programme (Unep) executive director Christopher Cox says heavy metals deposits discharged from industries into water bodies including Lake Victoria pose a health hazards to the populace who consume contaminated fish.
“Studies have shown that 95 per cent of waste go directly to the lake leading to nitrification and also health concerns. Micro-plastics are getting into the fish that we eat,” said Mr Cox during the Environmental Research and Scientific Conference to protect Lake Victoria basin from degradation in Mwanza, Tanzania in February.
High poverty levels
He warned that the region could lose billions of shillings they earn from exporting fish if pollution was not addressed. Mr Cox said Kenya could lose Sh8.5 billion ($85) it earns annually in the sector.
Experts during the conference also warned that huge chunks of forest cover have been transformed into farms leaving most land in the region bare.
Poor farming methods lead to the deposition of nitrogen and phosphate fertilisers into the waters, one reason which has been blamed for the mushrooming of hyacinth and decline of fish in Lake Victoria.
The EAC, once endowed with natural resources, now struggles to sustain water supply, food security and agricultural productivity.
Other than health, tourism and livestock production are also threatened, risking sources livelihoods.
Depletion of natural resources is to blame for poor health indicators and high levels of poverty, which is further compounded by the high dependent population ratio.
Though the EAC has made commendable progress in achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals, high mortality and morbidity rates persist.
For instance, the average life expectancy at birth is 57 years for the region. Diseases such as tuberculosis malaria, typhoid and bilharzia are widespread while malnutrition is rife among children.
Access to healthcare services is hampered by inadequate and inaccessible medical facilities. A case in point is the rugged terrain surrounding Mt Elgon in Kenya and Uganda.
A large number of children in East Africa often die due to starvation, malnutrition, diarrheal diseases and flooding, according to Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, (IPCC, 2014).
Nutritional status in the EAC region is still a big challenge with prevalence of low birth weight being a leading cause of neonatal mortality.
This is as high as 7.1 per cent in Rwanda, 8.0 per cent in Kenya, 8.4 per cent in Tanzania, 11.9 per cent in Uganda and 12.9 per cent in Burundi. The prevalence of moderate to severe stunting is even more alarming, being highest in Burundi at 57.7 per cent and lowest in Uganda at 33.4 per cent.
The effects of climate change are already being felt by people in East Africa. In Kenya the ongoing drought has been declared a national disaster. Between July 2011 and mid-2012, a severe drought deemed to be the worst in 60 years affected the entire East African region.
Observable effects of climate change on water resources in East Africa include change in rainfall patterns, receding or drying up of rivers and flooding that has led to loss of life and destruction of property East Africa worsening poverty conditions.
The apparent disappearance of the glaciers on Mount Kilimanjaro is due to climate change, according to IPCC, 2001. The glaciers act as a water tower and several rivers are now drying up. It is estimated that 82 per cent of the ice that capped the mountain, when it was first recorded in 1912, is no more.
Women, children and the elderly are vulnerable to adverse impact of climate change across Africa. They face physical danger and even death due to droughts, heat stress and wildfires.
Women labourers often experience additional duties as caregivers. In northern Kenya for instance, women spend days looking for food and water hence cannot engage in any other meaningful economic activities.
The EAC is under pressure to adopt measures and policies that address the worrying demographic profiles.
In 2012, United Nations Population Fund representative Janet Jackson expressed worry that the high population growth in the region was a threat to the stability of the states.
While castigating early marriages as a leading cause of poverty, she asked the EAC partner states to educate young people, provide employment and equip them with entrepreneurial skills, offer reproductive health information and services as well as create equal opportunities for girls and boys.
Since early 90s, individual countries have made several attempts to control population including limiting the number of children to not more than three, keeping girls in schools to reduce the number of fertility years and step up family planning.
Adoption of family planning services more than half a century ago has not helped much. Kenya, for instance, was the first sub-Saharan African country to adopt a national family planning programme in early 1970s. The slow uptake of the family planning means that there are unmet needs, especially for rural women and teenage pregnancies.
During the 2015 EAC Sectoral Council of Ministers meeting, Dr Obeth Nyamirimo, a member of the East African Legislative Assembly said Rwanda’s bid to implement a Reproductive Health Bill, limiting the births by every woman to three had hit a snag.
“We introduced the bill but had difficulty in limiting the number and even lacked penalties to spell for those who breached the rule,” she said.
“We realised it is important for the governments and stakeholders to invest in empowering individuals and communities through dialogue and understand the contribution of a healthy environment to good health and manageable population,” she said.
Admitting the difficulty in controlling population, Ms Eriyo said: “Developed countries like China and India for instance had worked hard to limit the number of children to two. But they are now facing a problem that their aging population is bigger than the working population needed to sustain them.”
She said both climate change and environmental degradation involved a complex range of interdependent factors, requiring multi-stakeholder and multi-sectoral responses to effectively address them.
It is due to this realisation that the five EAC partner states agreed to strengthen the integrated population, health, and environment (PHE) programme under Lake Victoria Basin Council so that players from the sectors which affect one another would plan, budget and work together as a strategy for sustainable development.
Dr Doreen Othero, the programme coordinator, said the initiative involves government ministries and civil societies dealing in health, environment, water, forestry and wildlife for efficiency.
The integrated approach means that if an NGO had pre-dominantly been implementing on HIV/Aids programme, they must adopt environmental conservation.
This is because those living with the virus have to eat balanced diet (which thrive in healthy environment) for the drugs to work.
Those involved in forestry could also educate the public about population control and its effects on environment.
“The PHE approach is one of the key solutions to attaining Sustainable Development Goals in the region.
“We needed a law to guide it in order to ensure that the integrated services address the needs of communities and gaps in service delivery,” says Dr Othero.
The projects are being implemented across the five partner states in regions within the lake basin where the Lake Victoria Environmental Programme is also run. It is in Kenya’s Mt Elgon areas of Entebes and Saboti, Trans Nzoia County, Mable and Kapchorwa.
In Tanzania, they are found in Simiyu, Itilima and Maswa Districts, Rwanda’s Bujesera and Rulindo districts while in Burundi, Bisoro and Nyarusange communes (equivalent to districts) benefitted.
Community champions in these areas have been trained to educate other community members about environmental conservation, family planning, reproductive health, HIV and Aids, malaria and control of communicable and non-communicable diseases.
Kenya has 50 PHE champions, Uganda 86, Tanzania 42, Rwanda 44 and 34 in Burundi.
Households are taught to have minimum requirements which include ensuring that all children under five are fully immunized, a couple does birth spacing or family planning, treat drinking water, have a dish rack, a clean latrine, a kitchen garden and also plant at least 50 fruit trees to promote agroforestry.