By Pa Essa Badjie
The Gambia’s environmental crisis is deepening and increasingly turning into political, economic, social issues and above all presenting catastrophic health crisis in the country. Arguably, the environment is the most important aspect of a nations life, it is an enabler for our political, economic and social activities. Society is compromising this precious resource. The political will is not certain and the practical determination to address the problem is in short supply. Resource constraints due to misplaced priorities, failure of gatekeeper responsibilities and utter disregard to fundamental duties to public office are massive bottlenecks in the pursuit for capacity to deal with the problem. Population growth and demand for resources put additional pressure on the environment. There are many illegal dumpsites and poorly constructed sewers in the country. Land pollution and waste management is part of the broader environmental problems which is making the quality of life in our cities, towns and villages unbearable. The problems with the environment are unfortunately part of the ginormous basket of misery and fragility in the country’s development strides.
As we look for what we consider to be sustainable solutions through grand projects and programmes costing millions of dalasi, we seem to be missing the one crucial component that ceteris paribus could lead society into a friendlier environment. That critical component is the all-important behaviour of the people. My argument is that behavioural change is the only assurance to a cleaner, friendly and serene environment. Without this, any investment that is brought in will be an exercise in futility. This is not based on any empirical evidence and therefore subject to contestation. I am only making inference from the axiom that ‘actions are the seed of fate’. What we do with the environment determines what we make of it. If we behave responsibly, it is ours to relish and vice versa.
Bakoteh dumpsite which is the recipient of almost all the waste from Kanifing Municipality has long been both an environmental and health hazard for the people living around the vicinity. Despite various investments earmarked for the area, there is very little impact. Some may contest that the problem is worse today than when it first started. The point of convergence is that it is a problem that arguably did not receive much prognosis and pragmatism. Decades abound, no sign of a lasting solution. Banjul and Brikama as the other densely populated areas in the country are in a smaller measure facing similar challenges with commercial and household waste. Our country is literally besieged with dumpsites with no smart waste management systems. Despite having the legislative and policy instruments in place, the local authorities do not have the skills and capacity to respond to the revolving crisis. There seem to be a gap between central government through the National Environment Agency and the local authorities to coordinate and develop strategies and action plans for appropriate waste management. One may like to think what sort of activities have been going on all these years. Surely there was and still no shortage of foreign trips and fat per diems all in the name of looking for sustainable solutions to the environment.
Looking back from 1973 census, the population was a little less than five hundred thousand people. Twenty years later (1993) the population grew 100% to a record 1 million people. Fast forward to 2013, the population was 1.8 million. United Nations estimates puts the current population to a little over ‘2 million’. According to World Bank figures, the annual population growth rate is about 3%. With this annual growth rate, the population is projected to reach 3 million people by the year 2030. Majority of the people live in the urban areas which puts the country in the top 80 of the most densely populated countries in the world. Realistically, a growing population correlates with an increase in the consumption rate which also mean that the volume of waste from households will increase. This is an expected phenomenon not unique to the country. Experts argued that we live in a world that is depended on material things. That society is about people and the material things which help to make society. The food we eat, the clothes we wear, the houses we build and the cars we drive all form part of the society. People are more affluent or have more disposable income today than thirty years ago and that means changes in lifestyle. The more disposable income we have the wider choice we are able to make in our consumption habits. People no longer depend on things for life’s necessities. We consume for pleasure, fun, out of habit, to be part of a certain group or simply to look different. That means the sheer volume of materials that forms part of an average life in the Gambia will increase and therefore more waste disposal.
The country has more doctors, bankers, accountants, economists and lawyers now than 20 years ago. More people in employment and more Gambians in the diaspora than before and the collective remittances account for a great share of the gross domestic product. Immigration especially from within the sub-region also contributes to economic and social activities. All these indicators are reasons for the rate of consumption to increase in the country and present tremendous challenges to the environment. Evidence shows that the volume of solid waste generated as a result of growth in population and consumption increased from over ‘18,000 tons in 1973 to over 120,000 tons in 2003’. Undoubtedly, it is expected to surge in line with population growth. Therefore, this body of evidence supports the hypothesis that there is a strong correlation between population growth and waste disposal.
It is important to stress that the problem is not population growth but reckless human activity. The premise of this argument is not to regulate lifestyle. People have the right to eat the food they want to eat, drive cars they want to and live the lifestyle of their choice. Equally, we have a responsibility to dispose what is not fit for our consumption in a responsible way. Our environmental problem is a collective responsibility and it needs fixing. As alluded to earlier, behavioural change is the assurance for a more sustainable environment. I am arguing for the introduction of behaviour changing taxes to the problem of environmental pollution, precisely commercial and household waste. This behaviour changing tax otherwise called ‘Pigouvian tax’ was introduced by Arthur Pigou a founder of welfare economics. The concept was to reflect on the external cost of production to society by applying a tax on production. This type of tax is used as a corrective measure to regulate the activities of households and firms from over polluting the environment which creates negative externalities to society.
Taxes on carbon emissions and cigarette smoking administered in some countries are some of the examples of ‘Pigouvian taxes’. The Nordic countries such as Norway, Sweden and Denmark were the first to adopt similar concepts in the 1990s and it spread quickly to places like China, South Africa, Tunisia and Thailand. These countries sit above The Gambia on the Human Development Index because among other things their people live a healthier life and have decent standard of living. Conscious of the necessity to have access to good healthcare system to measure outcome, it is also true that environmental conditions dictate the quality of people’s health. We have serious market failures in the environment and this behaviour changing taxes will help in addressing those challenges. If people can afford to consume that much, it is only fair that they contribute to the waste they generate. In broader sense, it is tax on the environment which polluters must pay for the destruction they cause. ‘Polluter pay’ principle is clearly stipulated in the National Environment Management Act (1994). The principle states that where pollution occurs, the polluter should bear the true and total costs of environmental pollution. I am cautiously questioning the enforcement of this act in The Gambia.
The benefits are additional revenue for local authorities which could be reinvested in society on critical sectors like health and education. Secondly, if correctly administered, it may lead to changing attitudes towards the environment and reduce pressure on the local authorities. To assume that these are without drawbacks will be an enormous intellectual dishonesty. There are different sides to each argument. How to measure the social cost and benefit to society, the distributional consequences especially against the poor and how it can be policed may all attract serious counter arguments. Mindful of the intricacies, Economists and environmental experts should come together in unison to devise techniques for measuring the cost and benefit to society in a way that will be fairer and not have a regressive impact on society.