Sat 22nd Oct 2005

Our environment

Having lived in western countries for many years, one thing that is apparent wherever I have been is the need for an environment that promotes good, healthy living. Many heavily industrialised countries have developed for the benefit of their economy, but to the detriment of their environment. A balance needs to be struck so that development is beneficial and not destructive in any way.

Our beautiful country, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, is at a turning point in its development. After almost 26 years of independence, we still bear so evidently the scars of colonialism - underdevelopment, extreme poverty and an under-skilled workforce. Only now are we on the verge of tackling these problems with any significant impact, but what we must be careful of is not losing the intrinsic treasures of our existence, our environment.

We should not be selling-off the family jewels - Tobago Cays and other lands - in order to solve these issues. A strategy like this ends up with us only having only 'the shirt on our back', and if the workforce is still under-skilled, we will not only have poverty, but also no way of sustaining our nation to a basic level of sustenance.

Recent bad weather has highlighted the need to maintain and preserve our environment. Landslides have been caused as the environment has not been maintained and the effect has been a negative impact on our economy, as it impedes the free and easy movement of people and goods. Under normal circumstances trees absorb the water flowing down the hillside. This water contains the vital nutrients, which they need to survive. In places where they have been cut down, this water flows down hillsides gathering topsoil on its way. When there is nothing to absorb the water and prevent it flowing straight into the seas, rivers and lakes, then the arrival of the water into the river and lakes, upsets the natural balance of acidity. This disturbance causes the fish and other wildlife to die.

The lush vegetation of our country needs to be replenished and cared for. A reduction in the lush vegetation will reduce the environment's ability to provide us with clean air and clean water, and equally importantly, absorb our pollution. This is especially needed in today's St. Vincent as we see a worrying rise in the number of cars on our roads. The pollution levels that Vincentians have to put up with are increasing unabated. If it continues to rise steeply, much money will be spent on health damages caused by air pollution - money that could be better spent building the economy.

Many western countries have gone through various stages of making mistakes with their environment and we need to look at the solutions that have been developed. According to a World Bank study, particulate pollution was responsible for 40,000 premature deaths every year, and one person dies every hour due to air pollution in Delhi, India. World wide studies have shown that diesel particles are extremely tiny, go deep into the lungs and are rich in polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH), which are highly carcinogenic (cancer causing). No safe level of airborne benzene (pollutant in car exhaust fumes) can be recommended, as benzene is carcinogenic to humans and there is no known safe threshold level. There is no need for us to make the same mistakes. We can leapfrog to the solution stage before damage to our environment becomes too serious.

So what can we do and what should we be doing?

St. Vincent needs to think seriously about afforestation. We need a policy whereby we are planting more trees than we are removing, i.e., sustainable regeneration of forest lands. Without the lush forests our rainfall will run-off faster and we will have less water. An extreme consequence will be the need to import water, making it costly and unaffordable to many people. Also, our lands can only absorb so much waste. We cannot carry on indefinitely putting waste in to our land and / or burning waste and filling the air with toxins. Recycling has been present in western countries for decades - it is not a difficult strategy for our country to adopt. Government should encourage more use of buses and bicycles, and less private car use. Action needs to be taken sooner rather than later and in unison. It is something we all need to be active in, as we will all be affected, regardless of social status and wealth.

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