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Are natural resources scalar-drivers of sustainability?

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Globally, over billions of people depend on natural resources everyday for food, energy, water and livelihoods all of which are cardinal to the realisation of human liberty, security and sustainable livings. Yet, like it or not, ‘global environment change’ is occurring[1] through various means, including extraction. From 1980 to 2008, the extraction of biomass, fossil fuels, minerals and metal ores had increased from 38 billion tonnes to 68 billion tonnes[2]. The landscape-level happenings due to extraction of natural resources are not entirely positive in both developing and developed economies. The growing visible and scientifically reported symptoms of environmental change in Amazon, Himalayas, deserts, and savanna regions foretell real concern for wise use of natural assets. In the global South economies of which African countries are parts, natural resources are threatened.

According to the United Nations University (1997:5) though Africa is ‘a continent richly endowed with diverse natural resources’, ‘the impact of the highest population growth rate (both humans and livestock) among the world’s regions and of pressures from various sectoral development activities has been the rapid decline in the intrinsic properties of Africa’s natural resources its land, soils, waters, minerals and forest resources.’ [3]

In and around cities of various sizes, intensive struggle for natural capital has increasingly overstressed or caused disappearance of resources required for sustainable human wellness. It is estimated that 3.5 billion of the world’s population will live in cities by 2025[4] when they will exploit urban natural resources the more. Gaelle Gourmelon based at Worldwatch Institute briefly examined the links of deforestation and urban consumption to inform that urbanisation might cause ‘the loss of up to 7.4 million acres of prime agricultural land each year’. The urbanisation phenomenon could fuel extensive ‘flow of ecological goods and services’[5].

Almost everyone knows that using natural resources must not degrade natural environment but, frequently, its use continues to cause water and air pollution, decline of earthworms, ozone depletion, soil contamination, and multitude of human discontents. The World Health Organisation highlights harmful impacts of environmental change on human health (see Figure 1). So, do we stop extracting and using natural resources to keep the environment intact and sustainable? The response is certainly not affirmative. No matter how technologically innovative human beings  are, the human race has never survived anywhere without picking fruit, catching fish, fetching water, mining clay, trading wildlife, tapping solar, or manufacturing products from natural resources. From this complex human-nature relational perspective, the utilisation of natural resources and, at the same time, putting in place inclusive measures to sustain the natural assets remains a formidable financial and political challenge. What the earlier question brings into mind is the idea to pro-actively and creatively integrate sustainable development (SD) framework into natural resource policies and programmes of nations and organisations.

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Figure 1: Impact of environmental change on health

Among natural resources, water properties are essential. This is best encapsulated in a recent report by the UN Economic Commission for Africa[6] (UNECA, 2016:87-88) that ‘water is the source of life and feeds directly into everyone’s basic needs — rural and urban, producers and consumers — in all sectors of the economy’. Water virtually connects every human systems to the physical world and posits as the foundation of the future. Indeed, it denotes why natural resources scalar-drive sustainability. There is a caveat though. In 2050, nearly 6.5 billion people will probably to live in places under water stress to stipulate bigger investment in physical ‘infrastructure for safe drinking water and wastewater treatment’[7] (also see Figure 2). A view of this kind does not contradict the prediction by the World Resources Institute that nearly 250 million Africans are likely to ‘live in areas of high water stress by 2030’.  Clearly, water stress indicates human lives will be at risk. Making lives better now and in the future supports the rationale to cooperatively monitor natural resource issues and feed them into policy-making on participatory basis. How possible do we greenly cultivate fresh foods, create more decent jobs and build healthier working force without water? Imagine the Ghanaian cocoa, Malian cotton and Kenyan coffee and their relations to climate change! The water requirement for cotton until it is harvested, for instance, is estimated at ‘4,000 cubic metres per ton’ and this could potentially increase to ‘9,980 per ton of finished textile’ (UNECA, 2016).

Figure 2: People living in areas of water stress by level of stress (OECD, BRIC countries and Rest of the World)


The rising demand for water and other natural resources to meet basic human needs and industrial purposes is what has brought about how more profits can be earned from using fewer natural resources to achieve green economic conditions that are sustainable overtime. Green economic principles fundamentally aim to undo deadly environmental ills to create a shared prosperity. Greening an economy seeks to stimulate governments, civil societies, industries and households to use natural resources in a manner that is sustainable, inclusive and fair to spawn green growth to benefit all. Thus, the success of a green economy will largely depend on sustainable management of natural ecosystem resources. It also recognises natural resources as a heritage thereby encouraging green eco-entrepreneurship to facilitate formation and sustainability of bio-cultural facilities to create green wealth, including the conservation of natural heritage sites of local and global significance.  How this can be done within emerging all-compact business deals in which profit-making is a prime motive may be confusing and unthinkable.

In the case of industries, most raw materials for processing of consumable and non-consumable goods are extracted from natural resource base. One of the policy-level strategies to reconcile or eliminate undesirable trade-offs is to incorporate sustainable development (SD) into business models[8] and industrial transactions ensuring that the three main  pillars of SD are blended and practised. For green economy, the goal is not merely to conventionally integrate social, environmental and economic dimensions of SD anyhow. The introduction of efficiency into production, consumption and management of resources is crucial — efficiency must be seen working in the harvesting of timber and water, energy, mining, and manufacturing. Efficiency is a good characteristic of a green economy. Apart from agreeing and mooting the notion that ‘broader economic and social growth is supported with an environmentally sustainable framework’, the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO)’s approach to Inclusive and Sustainable Industrial Development (ISID) is particularly working on how technical efficiency can result in higher profits and decouple environmental ills from industrial manufacturing.

From green production to industrial manufacturing, there are some practical initiatives being implemented at varied scales and across geographical boundaries to show that the path to green economic advancements are happening. The first to mention is Morocco’s Green Plan that recognises the need to manage and achieve 20-50% of ‘water savings through a shift from furrow to drip irrigation, and improved public irrigation canal networks (EIB, 2015 cited in UNECA, 2016). The restoration of degraded lands through Great Green Wall in Africa is another example. At industrial levels, UNIDO is actively programming and networking with other UN agencies, local governments and private sector organisations through the National Cleaner Production Centres to bring efficiency into global industrial sector that uses large volumes of raw materials from natural resources. In all, a new context for sustainable and green industrialisation sets forth that creating conducive living conditions for all needs to give careful attention to how innovative ecodesigning and green financing can lead to sustainable consumption of natural resources.


[1] GECAFS, 2005. Science plan and implementation strategy. Earth system science partnership (IGBP, IHDP, WCRP, DIVERSITAS) Report no. 2, Wallingford, UK, pp 36.

[2] Dittrich, M.; Giljum, S.; Lutter, S. and Polzin, C., 2012. Green economies around the world? Implications of resource use for development and the environment. Austria/Germany.

[3] UNU, 1997. UNU in Africa: managing natural resources for sustainable development. UNU-INRA, Accra.

[4] FAO, 2010. Growing greener cities. Rome, Italy.

[5] Allen, A., 2003. Environmental planning and management of peri-urban interface: perspectives on an emerging field. Environment and urbanization 15 (1) 135-147.

[6] UN Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA), 2016. Greening Africa’s industrialization. Economic Report on Africa, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

[7] Pinter, L., 2016. Envisioning the transition to a green industry. A presentation at the UNIDO/CEU Green Industry Course held July 11-22, 2016, Budapest, Hungary.

[8] UNU-INRA, 2015. Greening industries and green entrepreneurship promotion as a driver of sustainable and inclusive growth in rural Africa. Technical Training Guide, UNU-INRA Regional Green Economy Forum held in partnership with ILO, PAGE, ITC (ILO) and IDRC, November 9-13, 2015, Accra, Ghana.



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