KAMPALA – The United Nations General Assembly voted overwhelmingly on July 28, 2022, to declare the ability to live in “a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment” as a fundamental human right. The resolution comes at a critical moment in human history as we face an accelerating climate crisis, unprecedented biodiversity loss, and the ongoing threat of pollution all with catastrophic results. The UN acknowledged that one of the greatest threats to the future of humanity is climate change and environmental degradation.
The 2017 Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health Report showed that pollution is currently the leading environmental cause of disease and premature death worldwide. In 2015, pollution-related diseases were responsible for an estimated 9 million premature deaths. Results from the State of Global Air report of 2020 also show that in 2019 alone, air pollution contributed to 6.7 million deaths. In the less developed parts of the world, the people are mainly exposed to dirty air from using dirty fuel in the form of firewood, charcoal and kerosene for cooking. According to the 2011 World Bank Report, 900 million people in Africa use dirty cooking fuels. The Ministry of Energy and Minerals Development estimates that only 41.3% of Uganda’s total population has access to electricity, and up to 93% of Uganda’s total energy needs are met using wood fuel (firewood and charcoal).
The unclean cooking fuels also put a strain on the already stressed forests and other natural resources, for instance, in Uganda’s Buikwe District, the primary source of wood fuel was from forests. In July 2022, Regenerate Africa conducted a baseline study in Zitwe Parish, Ssi Subcounty, Buikwe District, where it was found that over 95% per cent of households relied primarily on wood for their cooking needs. The recognition of the right to a clean and healthy environment as a human right has therefore come at the right time – it entails a pollution-free environment, a safe and stable climate, adequate and nutritious food, and a non-toxic environment, in addition to participation, access to information, and access to justice in environmental problems.
Global efforts have been made to ensure people live in clean and healthy environments through instruments like the 2030 Agenda on Sustainable Development, the Sustainable Development Goals, and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Regionally, blocs have entered agreements to curb pollution, for example, the East African Community’s Protocol on Environment and Natural Resources on Management of Chemicals and the Eastern African Regional Framework Agreement on Air Pollution (Nairobi Agreement, 2008).
On a national scale, in Uganda, the right to a clean and healthy environment is constitutional under Article 39 of the 1995 Constitution 1995, which has been buttressed in various court cases like Nyakaana v National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) and Others (Constitutional Appeal 5 of 2011)  UGSC 14 (August 20 2015); and Water and Environment Network (U) Limited and 2 Others v NEMA and Anor (Consolidated Miscellaneous Cause 239 of 2020)  UGHCCD 30 (May 07 2021).
Declarations can be catalysts for change and vital tools people use to pressure governments and private companies to protect or improve human well-being. The provisions also need not remain on paper. For the resolution to have an effect in reducing pollution and supporting climate and environmental justice across Africa, we need to undertake an array of measures. However, actual efforts need to be taken to curb human activities leading to pollution of the environment and negative impacts on the people and natural environs. This can be achieved through: –
Policy, legal and regulatory transformation to support the protection of rights. This includes implementing sufficient safeguards for human rights and the environment at all levels. It entails improving the space for human rights and environmental defenders such as civil society and the judiciary. Protecting the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment requires concerted efforts from all stakeholders – governments, businesses, civil society organisations and non-governmental organisations. All in all, every person has a role to play to ensure a clean, healthy and sustainable environment, for both the present and future generations.
Trees being cut down for firewood in Zitwe Parish, Ssi Subcounty, Buikwe District (Copyright Regenerate Africa: 2022)
The author, Susan Nakanwagi is a lawyer, PhD scholar – University of Dundee, and a Natural Resources and Governance Specialist at Regenerate Africa.