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Historic! Access to clean, healthy environment now a human right issue, but is that enough?

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Story: Kwabena DOKYI, ACCRA

HENCEFORTH, a dirty environment will not only attract sanctions from the local authorities but will also be considered as an abuse of a human right and treated the same way as other human rights abuses.

This follows the historic declaration on Thursday, July 28, 2022, of a clean, healthy and sustainable environment as a universal human right by the UN General Assembly with 161 votes in favour (including that of Ghana), and eight abstentions.

The resolution, based on a similar text adopted last year by the Human Rights Council, calls upon states, international organisations, and business enterprises to scale up efforts to ensure a healthy environment for all. 

The UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, welcomed the ‘historic’ decision and said the landmark development demonstrated that Member States could come together in the collective fight against the triple planetary crisis of climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution.

“The resolution will help reduce environmental injustices, close protection gaps and empower people, especially those that are in vulnerable situations, including environmental human rights defenders, children, youth, women and indigenous peoples”, he said in a statement released by his Spokesperson’s Office.

Commenting on the resolution, Executive Chairman of the Jospong Group of Companies and President of the Environmental Service Providers Association (ESPA), Dr Joseph Siaw Agyepong, expressed the hope that it will engender a more focused attention on a clean, healthy and sustainable environment, especially across Africa, and the necessary resources made available to make its implementation impactful.

Endorsement by UN bodies

In a statement, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, also hailed the Assembly’s decision and echoed the Secretary-General’s call for urgent action to implement it.

“Today is a historic moment, but simply affirming our right to a healthy environment is not enough. The General Assembly resolution is very clear: States must implement their international commitments and scale up their efforts to realise it. We will all suffer much worse effects from environmental crises, if we do not work together to collectively avert them now,” she said.

The resolution text, which was originally presented by Costa Rica, the Maldives, Morocco, Slovenia and Switzerland last June, and now co-sponsored by 161 countries, notes that the right to a healthy environment is related to existing international law and affirms that its promotion requires the full implementation of multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs).

Press Conference by the Secretary-General on the occasion of the Seventy-second Session of the General Assembly

Press Conference by the Secretary-General on the occasion of the Seventy-second Session of the General Assembly

Ghana has since January 25, 1924, signed onto 345 MEAs and done 98 ratifications, with the latest being the “Amendments to Annex I to Amend the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (regarding the prohibition on the use and carriage for use as fuel of heavy fuel oil by ships in Arctic waters) (IEA ID# 9046)” which was signed on June 17, 2021, but which came into force on November 1, 2022.

Impact of Climate Change

The Right to a Healthy Environment resolution also recognises that the impact of climate change, the unsustainable management and use of natural resources, the pollution of air, land and water, the unsound management of chemicals and waste, and the resulting loss in biodiversity, interfere with the enjoyment of this right – and that environmental damage has negative implications, both direct and indirect, for the effective enjoyment of all human rights.

According to the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment, David Boyd, the Assembly’s decision will change the very nature of international human rights law.

“Governments have made promises to clean up the environment and address the climate emergency for decades but having a right to a healthy environment changes people’s perspective from ‘begging’ to demanding governments to act”, he recently told UN News.

“From a foothold in the 1972 Stockholm Declaration, the right has been integrated into constitutions, national laws and regional agreements. Today’s decision elevates the right to where it belongs: universal recognition”, UN Environment chief, Inger Andersen, also explained in a statement published the same day the resolution was passed.

The recognition of the right to a healthy environment by these UN bodies, although not legally binding— meaning countries don’t have a legal obligation to comply— is expected to be a catalyst for action and to empower ordinary people to hold their governments accountable.

Meanwhile, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), air pollution is the largest cause of disease and premature deaths in the world, with more than seven million people dying early each year due to pollution.

Water, sanitation

The declaration of a clean, healthy and sustainable environment as a human right notwithstanding, it is not the first time the UN has passed a resolution related to the environment, as a human right.

On July 28, 2010, the UN General Assembly adopted a historical resolution recognising “the right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation as a human right that is essential for the full enjoyment of life and all human rights” (A/RES/64/292).

Furthermore, since 2015, the General Assembly and the Human Rights Council have recognised both the right to safe drinking water and the right to sanitation as closely related but distinct human rights.

International human rights law enjoins states to work towards achieving universal access to water and sanitation for all, without any discrimination, while prioritising those most in need.

The key elements for accessing the rights are:

Availability: The water supply for each person must be sufficient and continuous to cover personal and domestic uses, which comprise water for drinking, washing clothes, food preparation and personal and household hygiene. There must be a sufficient number of sanitation facilities within or in the immediate vicinity of each household, and all health or educational institutions, workplaces and other public places to ensure that all the needs of each person are met.

Accessibility: Water and sanitation facilities must be physically accessible and within safe reach for all sections of the population, taking into account the needs of particular groups, including persons with disabilities, women, children and older persons.

Affordability: Water services must be affordable to all. No individual or group should be denied access to safe drinking water because they cannot afford to pay.

Quality and safety: Water for personal and domestic use must be safe and free from micro-organisms, chemical substances and radiological hazards that constitute a threat to a person’s health. Sanitation facilities must be hygienically safe to use and prevent human, animal and insect contact with human excreta.

Acceptability: All water and sanitation facilities must be culturally acceptable and appropriate, and sensitive to gender, life-cycle and privacy requirements.

Challenges with waste management

Albeit, the country still faces numerous challenges in the provision of especially sanitation services. According to United Nation Conference on Human Settlement report (UNCHS, 1996) one third to one half of solid waste generated within most cities in low-and-middle-income countries, (including Ghana) are not collected.

The waste usually ends up on illegal dumps on street, open spaces and waste lands. Malombe (1993) argues that irregular services rendered to producers (households) of refuse by municipal councils compel them to dispose of refuse indiscriminately.

Malombe’s argument is very pertinent in Ghana where waste management services are largely inefficient and ineffective. It is estimated that about 83 per cent of the population dump their refuse in either authorised or unauthorised sites in their neighbourhoods, and due to poor handling of solid waste, unsanitary conditions are created (Bennah et al., 1993).

Onibokum (1999) explained that efficient and effective service delivery depends on managerial and organisational efficiency, accountability, legitimacy, response to the public, transparency in decision making and pluralism of policy making and choice.

According to a national report on waste management in Ghana presented at the 18th Session of the United Nations Commission On Sustainable Development in 2009 and published by a University of Ghana Psychology student, Ansu Tutu Baffour, in the 2014/2015 academic year, “Most of the concern for waste management in Ghana is with the urban areas than the rural areas. Urban areas in Ghana produce a variety of waste. The predominant wastes being domestic solid waste, industrial waste and construction waste.

Drains, Open Spaces

“These wastes are sent to a few dumpsites, but majority end up in drains, streams and open places. Waste is disposed of by open dumping, open burning, controlled burning and tipping at dumpsites. This has created a pressing sanitation problem as many towns and cities are overwhelmed with management of municipal solid and liquid wastes.”

Also touching on plastic waste generated in the country, the report said it was the most post-consumer waste, which comprised plastic bottles, polythene bags, sachets and wrappers.

“It is estimated that, there are over 40 plastic producing industries in the country producing over 30,000 metric tonnes per annum of assorted plastic products. In addition, about 12,000 metric tonnes of finished plastic products are imported annually into the country.

“These add to compound the plastic waste problem in the country. At least about 20-30 per cent of these end up as waste in the streets. With very few recycling facilities in the country, the issue of post-consumer plastic waste has become a major issue of concern,” the report stated.

The situation of waste management in the country has been traced to poor planning for waste management programmes; inadequate equipment and operational funds to support waste management activities; inadequate sites and facilities for waste management operations; inadequate skills and capacity of waste management staff; and negative attitudes of the general public towards the environment in general.

Solid Waste Management Strategy

To effectively deal with the challenge of waste management in the country, the government together with stakeholders in June 2020 put together a solid waste management strategy for the country.

In the foreword of the strategy signed by the Minister of Sanitation and Water Resources, Mrs Cecilia Abena Dapaah, she states that “The ambition and scope of this Solid Waste Management Strategy (SWMS) reflects the Government of Ghana’s commitment in delivering on the President’s vision of making Accra the ‘Cleanest City in Africa’ and by extension the whole country.

The strategy apart from recognising the strengths and weaknesses of current solid waste management practices across the country, sets out a clear pathway, underpinned by existing policies and legislations.

“It is supported by practical operational recommendations, for the realisation of a more progressive, high quality, and sustainable solid waste management services in Ghana which will enhance environmental, public health, and economic benefits for all citizens.

“The development of this strategy is the latest of a series of pro-active steps the Government of Ghana is taking to tackle the environmental challenges facing the country.

Plastic Waste

“On plastic waste, for example, Ghana recently became the first African nation to join the Global Plastic Action Partnership (GPAP) as part of efforts to drastically reduce plastic waste in waterways and oceans.

“Under the leadership of the Ministry of Environment, Science, Technology and Innovation (MESTI), a National Plastic Management Policy was launched in 2019 which aims to establish an extended producer responsibility scheme for plastic products.

“The Ministry of Sanitation and Water Resources is also finalising an Integrated Master Plan for the Greater Accra Metropolitan Area, which will be an umbrella document including components on solid waste, liquid waste and drainage. This will be replicated in the other urban centres of the country.

“Cumulatively these initiatives among others, are designed to place our country on the road towards enhancing environmental stewardship, sustainable and resilient growth, and delivering a vision for the future of which we can all be proud,” the document states in part.

Now that environmental stewardship has been declared a human right, it is hoped that every Ghanaian, regardless of class, will have access to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment.

Some Quotes

  • The resolution will help reduce environmental injustices, close protection gaps and empower people, especially those that are in vulnerable situations, including environmental human rights defenders, children, youth, women and indigenous peoples.
  • Governments have made promises to clean up the environment and address the climate emergency for decades but having a right to a healthy environment changes people’s perspective from ‘begging’ to demanding governments to act.
  • It is estimated that, there are over 40 plastic producing industries in the country producing over 30,000 metric tonnes per annum of assorted plastic products. In addition, about 12,000 metric tonnes of finished plastic products are imported annually into the country.
  • On plastic waste, for example, Ghana recently became the first African nation to join the Global Plastic Action Partnership (GPAP) as part of efforts to drastically reduce plastic waste in waterways and oceans.
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