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Africa: Grow Dirty Now, Clean up Later?

In his Middle-earth Legendarium, Tolkien succeeds in painting an engrossing picture — albeit a fabricated one — of the struggle between nature and industry that is cleverly illustrative of the truth of our time. On the one hand are the Naturalists — the proponents of the preservation and sanctity of nature — and on the other hand are the Industrialists — the proponents of technological development and machinery. The latter sees the former as backwards and idealistic, and the former sees the latter as destructive and lacking discretion.

Tolkien presents this conflict in a conversation between two old colleagues. The Grey One observed how the cloak of the White One splintered from a single white into many colours. He, then, remarked that he liked white better.

The White One, however, sneered: “White! It serves as a beginning. White cloth may be dyed. The white page can be overwritten, and the white light can be broken.”

To which the Grey One retorted: “In which case it is no longer white. And he that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.”

This picturesque anecdote helps us further glean into the seemingly opposing schools of thought of the naturalists and the industrialists as purists and tinkerers. The Grey One’s preference for pure white marks him as primitive minded in the eyes of the White One, for “white [merely]. . . serves as a beginning” that must subsequently be broken into many colours. Breaking white, however, marks the White One as unwise in the eyes of the Grey One, for breaking a thing “to find out what it is” is not “the path of wisdom.”

Now the intriguing impasse: Where do we begin to draw the line between breaking purity and preserving purity…between industry and nature?

Urbanization and the Environment

In a world — our real world — that has increasingly gone the way of the White One in the spirit of industry and technological progress, worrying effects to the environment, as a result, has led to calls to pay urgent attention to the Grey One. Hence, the school of thought being championed today seems to conceptually lie right on the line between nature and industry in the idea of going green. This presents a world where increasing urbanization and industrial progress can be — and should be — achieved with utmost respect for the natural environment in a sustainable balance between the two.

Going Green via Energy-Connection

That Goldilocks line has, however, proven elusive to find and draw in practice.

Concerning Africa and the line, there is a reported (and observable) imbalance between urbanization and the environment. According to a new report by the World Bank Group, even though Africa is late to urbanization, it is doing so very rapidly. This rapid Urbanization and its momentary and practical benefits to the economy has rendered the continent oblivious to the “deleterious and largely unchecked impacts on the natural environment” which, ironically, “carries tangible economic, fiscal and social costs” extending into the future.

The report eyes the problem as “the lack of an adequate understanding of the natural environment and the extent of urban environmental degradation in Africa, its economic and human costs, and the complex interplay between urban development, natural asset decline, and the value of ecosystem services provision.” This is due to “very little systematic analytic work on these issues in Africa.” The lack has, apparently, rendered governments incapable of making well-informed decisions on urban development and presents the peril that Africa may for a long time be conditioned into a dangerously inefficient “grow dirty now, clean up later” development trajectory and non-proactive mentality.

A Dance of Two Forces

The Greening Africa’s Cities report launched at the ‘Greening Africa’s Cities Symposium’ held in Tanzania, Dar es Salaam, nonetheless, noted important opportunities for focused action “to change the current environmental trajectory of African cities so that they move towards a more harmonious relationship between their natural and built environments.”

Importantly, however, it highlights these opportunities against the backdrop of a crucial context in the entanglement of urbanization and the environment.

Like white on rice, environmental impacts are intrinsic to the process of urbanization. As “urbanization entails the growth and spatial concentration of population, economic production, and consumption,” its general effects such as “the expanded use and consumption of natural resources, the transformation of the natural environment into the built environment as residences, economic enterprises, and infrastructure,” and “the generation of waste including atmospheric emissions, wastewater and solid waste” are inevitable insofar as urbanization is decidedly inevitable.

Notice how this is not necessarily a bad thing. The report observes how “natural resource consumption, for example, is a precondition of economic production, hence of improvements in human welfare.” And rightly so. The environment caters for our basic needs like food, clothing, and shelter. It also recycles our natural wastes in a symbiotic cycle of bio-usefulness. As the adage goes, we eat to live. Yes, we inevitably impact the environment for our lives.

The issue lies in the balance of impact, for “while urbanization impacts the natural environment, the natural environment [also] impacts urbanization.” The feedback loop created “may be either positively or negatively reinforcing.”

The Green Trend in Africa

According to the report, Africa happens to be on the “negatively reinforcing” trajectory as impacts of urbanization on the natural environment overbalances the impact of the environment on the population. In summary, it stated:

“Rapid urbanization, coupled with low levels of wealth and technology and weak institutions, have had a combined effect on the environment that has been particularly severe in Africa. Poor and ineffective planning has led to the transformation of valuable ecosystems and other open space areas in and around cities, while a growing backlog in infrastructure investment and service delivery has led to major problems of pollution, flooding, and overconsumption of resources. All of these problems, along with a lack of protection from invasive alien species, have had major impacts on ecosystems and biodiversity.”

Zooming specifically on Ghana, the recent evidence amassed by the World Bank while undertaking Urbanization Reviews in ten African countries—including Ghana—indicated that “the organizations which are responsible for planning, managing, and governing African cities tend to be jurisdictionally fractured, weakly empowered and poorly capacitated.”

Thus, Collins Adjei Mensah, of the Department of Geography and Regional Planning, University of Cape Coast, wrote a study on how “rapid urbanization has also been identified as the major cause of the depletion of green space in the city of Kumasi in Ghana, once known as the ‘Garden City of West Africa.’” He poignantly observed in another study how “many of the parks and garden spaces within the city that were once in a good condition have been degraded. . . and green open space now covers only 10% of the total land area.” Sad. But true. Ghana, like Africa, is indeed on the “negatively reinforcing” trajectory.

Changing the Trajectory: Greening Africa’s Cities

The African situation is evidently not sustainable. African “cities urgently need to change their trajectory by slowing and ultimately reversing the environmental decline.” But, considering the reality that “much of the already-built urban space in African cities may be too far deteriorated for immediate revitalization to be feasible,” how can a change of trajectory be achieved?

Rattray Park in Kumasi by Aeroshutter

Another reality, however, beckons, “that Africa’s cities are set to increase dramatically in extent in the coming years.” And that is where the opportunity for focused action lies. The opportunity in new town and city developments.

The report, therefore, highlighted important courses of action in three broad areas—waste and storm water, city structure, and the use of natural resources—as follows:

  • In dealing with waste and storm water, cities should avoid excessive reliance on either natural systems or traditional conveyance infrastructure.
  • In managing urban growth and city structure, cities should avoid indiscriminate loss of natural and semi-natural open space areas.
  • Cities should not neglect to look after their natural resources

The study acknowledged that “if this growth can be guided appropriately, these newly-developed areas will not only be more liveable and productive themselves but will ultimately be able to pay for some of the costs of restoring already degraded urban areas later.”

So, the important and main priority is to position new African cities on a greener development trajectory, after which attention can be turned to correcting some of the impairment that has already been done.

. . .

Consider the detailed report here, as we cast our mind back to Middle-earth to conclude with a solemn lesson.

As our aforementioned Grey Purist and White Tinkerer lock in a dialogue of differing viewpoints as a naturalist and an industrialist, the Grey One earlier acknowledged: “Things are now in motion which will require the union of all our strength.”

With a longing for dominance, however, the White One haughtily rejected: “You need not speak to me as to one. . . to be instructed by you.”

And for the outcome of this dissonance in viewpoints, a true sentinel of the environment—a Tree One—later observed of the White One: “He is plotting to become a Power. He has a mind of metal and wheels; and he does not care for growing things, except as far as they serve him for the moment.”

. . .

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the non-green and non-balancing attitude we exemplify anytime we champion urbanization and industrialization over the environment. . . What serves us for the moment more than the future. . . . Grow Dirty Now, Clean Up Later!


WRITER: Richard Yaw Baafi



Richard Yaw Baafi
Richard Yaw Baafi

Richard Yaw Baafi is a Writer and Senior Editor at siro360 covering just about everything profound and intriguing. He has a bachelor’s in Banking and Finance from the University of Professional Studies, Accra, where his paper on Internet Banking garnered the highest appraisal. And true to the thinker that he is, he believes storytelling thinking, much like computational and design thinking, is a major lens through which the world can be understood, for everything is a story.