Making the Link – Population, Health and Environment
One morning, John took me for a drive up the dry river bed to see what wild life we could find. As we drove we seemed to pass small herds of domesticated animals every few minutes, mostly goats and camels, but occasionally sheep and cattle and almost all tended by children.
We stopped at one of the rare water holes where a man was bringing up buckets of water from about 2m below ground level into a trough for a herd of a hundred or so goats, tended by three undernourished children aged about 9–12. However, what truly amazed me was what I saw 100m away. Along the luggar bank and hiding from the sun under a big tree was another small herd of goats, looked after by a girl who looked no older than about 10, patiently waiting for their turn to be served at the water trough.
Four legs and queuing for a drink
An old man told us that some elephants had been seen that morning and pointed us in the direction they went. We duly found five and I got some wonderful photos – with one of the locals getting me in a good position for photos and another half dragging me back to the Land Rover for safety reasons. A great experience for me, but I couldn’t help thinking of the thousands of elephants that used to roam across the nearby plains.
The only other wild animal we saw that morning was a baboon – a situation not unlike the UK where we are used to seeing so many fields of cows and sheep and just the occasional fox. At least our herds are protected by fences and hedgerows instead of by undernourished child shepherds who have no school to go to. All this reminded me of the figures from the WWF Living Planet report, which showed that globally, wild life animal populations have fallen by more than 50% in the last 40 years. In contrast, United Nations reports show that in the same period, the human population on Earth has doubled. What are we doing to our world, whether it be Africa or Europe? Humans currently make up 32% of the global biomass of vertebrates with wild animals now less than 5%, the rest being livestock bred for human benefit.
For many Samburu men, having lots of children gives them high social status. Recently, a researcher from University College London (UCL) carried out a survey on the attitudes of Samburu men in rural areas within the communities reached with CHAT PHE services, with a particular focus on the relationship between environmental problems and family size. This programme involved focus group discussions and semi structured interviews and revealed support for environmentally–sensitised family planning promotion. These men highlighted their dependence on natural resources and challenges faced in providing for large families and maintaining livestock during droughts. They realised that these practices lead to natural resource exhaustion, environmental degradation and wildlife dispersal, undermining the key economic benefits of environmental and wild life conservation. The researcher concluded that relating family size to the environment is a compelling strategy to improve support for family planning among Samburu men.
The PHE approach is getting increasing attention in many developing countries and was highlighted at the recent Global Summit on Family Planning in London (FP2020). CHASE Africa, which started out in Kenya with tree planting, has taken this approach – matching the focus on the environment with a focus on family planning and women’s rights with support for programmes run by CHAT, Dandelion Africa, the Mount Kenya Trust and an expanding number of other centres in East Africa.
It is encouraging to hear that men are responding in this way as it is my experience to date that most women in rural Kenya want to hide their use of contraception from their husbands, as their husbands just want as many children as possible. The culture in many parts of sub-Saharan Africa is for the men to make the decisions on family size, and it is my understanding that discussion between partners on this sensitive subject is often limited. These research results suggest that a holistic approach bringing together family planning and environmental conservation is a good way of showing what can be achieved in terms of better nutrition and providing more opportunities for education, jobs and improving the general quality of life. It is a way of encouraging men and women to discuss related problems together. This approach has worked extremely well for the Blue Ventures programme in Madagascar which combines marine conservation with family planning in small, coastal communities.
I was only able to stay with the team for a few days, so arranged for a small aircraft to pick me up to fly back to Nanyuki. The airstrip was on a bare hill top with no more than a windsock, a “T” on the ground, one tree and a tiny, grass roofed shelter. As we flew away I was very conscious of how dry the area was, with any water at all in only one of the river beds I could see, and of the difficulties the local people had getting adequate supplies of water for themselves and their animals in the dry season.
It was sad to think of the disappearing wild animals with the likely loss of future jobs in ecotourism, the father who cried because he could not support even one of his 10 children through school, the women who were so anxious to stop having more babies, but felt unable to talk to their husbands about the problem and the many, many, often poorly nourished children: some just sitting around with nothing to do, slightly older ones tending their animals, with little prospect of school. I sincerely hope that the PHE (Population, Health and Environment) programmes undertaken by organisations like CHAT can give these communities the knowledge and support they need to help them develop sustainable and rewarding lives for themselves.
The work of CHAT in Samburu areas is effective and greatly appreciated by the local communities. Michael, one of the most experienced mobilisers, visits primary and secondary schools in the region every few months to give talks, show videos and lead discussions on key topics like HIV, family planning and the environment, helping the young people to understand what is going on and helping them to make their own decisions about what can be done. Nevertheless, getting the message to the many rural communities yet to be reached by such programmes of the benefits to themselves and their environment of conservation efforts and smaller families is a huge challenge.
Let us hope that these programmes can be expanded and many more comparable schemes can be developed throughout Kenya and indeed throughout the whole of Sub-Saharan Africa. As education and understanding of realities improves, so the barriers to the changes that can bring such benefits to the quality of life of so many people are slowly falling.
* Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 2017, 14(5), 528