Can we set priorities between Health and Climate Change? An entrepreneurial approach to tackle the Millenium Development Goals

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Laura Burger reports from the International Environment House in Geneva where two short documentaries were screened, “When the Water Ends” and Carbon for Water, which focus on the subject of health, lack of clean water and climate change in Sub-Saharan Africa, Friday 28 October.

The United Nations launched a large Millennium Campaign in 2000. Eight goals were chosen to improve dramatically the state of the world by the year 2015. Today, increasingly more people have a sceptical view on this campaign. Four years are left, but the chances that any of the goals is met are very low.

The question is: can these goals at all be met if they are considered separate from each other? Can you end poverty without ensuring a healthy environment? Can you ensure child health if you do not provide universal education? The Millennium Development Goals contain per se a conceptual flaw that will stand against the success of the campaign. How easy would it be if the world could be understood in separated concepts. But instead, it is a complex nexus of living beings, natural environments and processes. And all are interlinked. Who fails to consider it as a whole may improve one end but worsen the other end, and ultimately won’t make any change.

The Carbon for Water campaign launched by Vestergaard Frandsen is said to impact four Millennium Development Goals: reduce child mortality, improve maternal health, combat diseases, and ensure environmental sustainability. Health aspects are achieved through the distributed Lifestraw Family filters, that remove 99.99% of bacteria and viruses from the water. Environmental sustainability is achieved through the carbon emission reduction, which is a small contribution to mitigate carbon emissions and combat climate change.

The emission reduction achieved by the campaign and the legitimacy of such a campaign for getting carbon credits are however strongly debated. The main critic raised by Kevin Starr amongst others is that the majority of the Kenyan population actually does not boil the water before drinking it. The emission reductions are therefore not realized. Worse, the project is part of a system that encourages polluters to pollute. According to Shiney Varghese: “Carbon trading has emerged as a response to our refusal to cut down or reduce actual emissions. Instead it is a mechanism to provide emitters with a cheaper option: continue with emissions by buying permits to pollute rather than incur costs to replace the GHG [Greenhouse gas]-emitting technology with better options. ”

Moreover, the production of the filters remains in the hands of the North. There is no intention to shift it to Africa. Mikkel Vestergaard Frandsen, CEO of Vestergaard Frandsen, is convinced that keeping the production local would not add much value to the project, whose impact on the community regarding employment and health is already high. But what about the additional carbon emissions due to the transport of the filters and maintenance pieces? And isn’t it more sustainable to localize the production of a good and transfer the know-how to the people who will eventually be the end users?

Nevertheless, even the opponents to the project acknowledge the fact that water related health issues have to be addressed and that filters can be a solution. “There is no doubt that technologies like LifeStraw may be necessary (and much better than, say, bottled water) in water-stressed situations, or emergencies such as floods” writes Shiney Varghese, while Kevin Starr says that the LifeStraw filter is very effective.

So which goal should be given priority? Better to provide health tools at the cost of the environment or to save the environment while renouncing to distribute the filters? There is no answer, as it is a question of the time scale. In the short-term, health is a priority. Who thinks about the future if one’s days are counted? But in the long-term, African people will be some of the most vulnerable to climate change. Therefore, let us not choose one goal over the others. If we want to bring a change, we must tackle all of them simultaneously.

 

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