A Healthy Risk? Ancient Answers
By Philipp Gassner
ONE hot summer day in ancient Sicily thousands of years ago, Noble Damocles is guest at a banquet of his tyrant king Dionysius. Surrounded by magnificence, power and authority, Damocles envies the ruler and exclaims: ‘My king, you are truly extremely fortunate’. Promptly, Dionysius offers to switch chairs with Damocles, so that Damocles can taste that very fortune. When Damocles accepts the proposal and sits down in the throne surrounded by every extravagance, Dionysius had arranged a huge, razor-sharp sword hanging above the throne, held only by a single hair of a horse’s tail.
Whereas the ‘Sword of Damocles’ has become a byword for a happy situation overshadowed by danger, risks to our health don’t always have to be as extreme. Of course, there might always be a meteorite on its way to – very improbably – wipe all the life from our green Earth. Yet, everyday life health risks are much more tangible.
Pollution from Pandora’s Box
And air pollution ‘is the single biggest environmental health risk’ with around seven million deaths a year, according to a report the World Health Organization (WHO) issued last month. However, much worse affected than New York is Southeast Asia – now the most polluted region in the world with more than five million deaths from air pollution. Does this pollution stink from Pandora’s box we have opened?
As such evil, the health risk of air pollution can be seen: once freed, it can have persistent and ubiquitous consequences.
Climate Change Oracles
Thousands of years after their creation, people in Greece are often in doubt about important questions in their lives. On such hesitations, the blind seeress Pythia can shed light. She is the most famous oracle and lives in the city of Delphi. One day, a weary king comes to the temple and asks the oracle if he would win the battle. She smiles and tells him a great king would win the battle. That was exactly what he had wanted to hear and he goes away happily. However, when he leads his men into battle, they lose and he is killed by the other king – the great king.
Pythia’s prophecies are enigmatic and ambiguous. They might reveal that a major danger is impending, but they won’t tell how high its probability, severity or distribution might be. The oracle is characteristic for many environmental health risks nowadays, which have high uncertainty with regard to both risk dimensions. Take climate change, already causing an estimated 150,000 deaths annually. These occur, for instance, from more frequent extreme weather conditions, like Typhoon Haiyan, or from affected patterns of food production, impacting on malnutrition.
The same is true for biodiversity loss and the degradation of ecosystems: for many of the world’s poor, one of the greatest environmental threats to health remains lack of access to safe water and sanitation, says the ASEAN Centre for Biodiversity. Water resources are replenished and purified by water ecosystems. When they are lost, human health and well-being is undoubtedly put at risk, while exact probabilities, the severity or distribution remain yet unclear.
While sailing home from the Trojan War, the hero Odysseus and his men come ashore to restock their food and water. They are thrilled to find a cave full of sheep, build a fire in the cave, and cook some sheep on a sharpened stick. ‘Uaaagh’, suddenly echoes through the cave and a one-eyed giant appears at the mouth of the cave, swinging a club. Swiftly, Odysseus grabs a sharpened stick and blinds the Cyclops, who is restricted by his one eye. Odysseus and his men get safely away by pretending to be sheep making bah-bah sounds until they crawled to safety.
The Cyclops’ limitation to perceive only one part of reality with his one eye describes also many health risks. When viewing them, only one side can be ascertained while the other remains unsure. It is often the case that risks are greatly underestimated whose magnitude can be grasped but whose probability of occurrence is uncertain or continuously changes.
Prominent examples are vector-borne diseases. Mankind has always co-habited with innumerable other living forms. While many of them support us, some few can transmit infectious diseases between humans or from animals to humans. Such vectors are, for instance, mosquitoes, ticks, flies, or fleas. These benefit from tropical climate, inefficient water management, low priority for health impact in development activities, unplanned urbanization and widespread poverty, but also factors of a changing environment.‘Vector-borne diseases have significant impact on socioeconomic status of communities, and they vigorously fuel the vicious circle of poverty,’ says Dr. Poonam Khetrapal Singh, Regional Director of the WHO Southeast Asia, indicating the severe effects of such environmental health risks. Nevertheless, cyclops-like, we can’t fully grasp the probabilities of environmental impact. But there is no need to turn to stone.
How to Kill the Beast
In ancient Greece, the world was full of dangers. Some novel phenomena affect people today with the same fear and dread. Instead of turning into stone, however, there are solutions at hand. Remember, Medusa was defeated in the myth with a smart strategy, using a mirror, rather than looking directly in her eyes. Such strategies are emphasized by the World Health Organization (WHO), which is reinforcing the linkages between health and environment. An example is ‘Integrated Vector Management’, promoting greatest disease control benefit, while minimizing negative impacts on ecosystems, e.g., from the excessive use of chemicals.
The WHO works with partners to provide education and improve awareness so that people know how to protect themselves and their communities. But even more important are the conservation of a healthy environment and the mitigation of climate change to minimize the environmental health risks in the first place. On this focuses the ‘Health and Environment Linkages Initiative’ by the WHO and the UN Environment Programme, as does the ASEAN Center for Biodiversity in the region.The Philippine-based Center, supported by the GIZ (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit) since 2010, coordinating sustainable use and conservation of biodiversity. After all, the best risk management is prevention: Healthy ecosystems for healthy people. Let’s take this wakeup call seriously and avoid Cassandras’ destiny:
Cassandra was a beautiful young priestess at Apollo’s temple, with great ambition. One day, the mighty god Apollo swings by and is delighted by Cassandra. He is fond of making a deal. If Cassandra kisses him, he would give her the gift of prophecy so she could see into the future. Cassandra does not hesitate. As soon as she is able, she looks eagerly into the future. But she does not like what she sees: Apollo is helping to destroy her beloved city of Troy. She spits in his face. Apollo is furious, and since he could not take away his gift, he adds to it. From that time on, Cassandra could see the future, but no one believed a thing she said. Later, when Cassandra warned her people that the Trojan horse was a trap, nobody paid the slightest attention. They laughed at her and widely opened the doors …
Philipp Gassner is a consultant for science and sustainability communication at the GIZ-assisted Biodiversity and Climate Change Project, implemented by the ASEAN Centre for Biodiversity, Philippines.
A Lifeline to the Future
Water is life, and without water, all life forms would be dead. Without water, we could not grow food, and without food, all life forms would be dead too. Since we grew up with water around us, we have perhaps assumed all along that water will always be there, in the same way that air will always be there. These two assumptions may be correct, but what if both the water and the air would become polluted? And what if the supply of clean water would dry up, and no more water would come out of our faucets?
In a manner of speaking, air is a renewable resource in our country because every day, the winds would sweep away the dirty air into the oceans around us. This might be true for now, but what if the time will come when the density of the air pollution would be too much for the winds to sweep away? The fact is, we are no longer measuring the levels of air pollution in our country, so much so that we may not even know whether the levels are still normal or not.
In theory, water is a renewable resource everywhere, provided that the natural sources of water are preserved, and provided further that the natural process of water collection is also preserved. As God and nature has provided for, the natural sources of water are our watersheds, and it does not take a genius to understand that. While it may have taken a whole bunch of fools over the generations to destroy our watersheds, it will not take a genius to reclaim and restore our watersheds, even if it would again take many generations to do that.
We might actually have many geniuses around us, but we do not need them to tell us that if we bring back the trees around our watersheds, it will bring back the water in the short run, and it will eventually ensure the continuing supply of water in the long run. And if that is not enough incentive for us to do that, let us ask these geniuses to explain to us that if we bring back the trees, these trees would also hold the water in their roots, a scientific fact that would prevent floods in the lowlands.
For those who could not chew gum and walk at the same time, we would perhaps need the geniuses to explain that producing water and preventing floods are not the only benefits of bringing back the trees to the areas around our watersheds. It might be too complicated to explain, but these trees would not only produce food in the form of fruits and leaves, these would also produce oxygen that would clean the air, and counter the carbon pollution in the air. Again it might be too complex to explain, but the trees would actually absorb the carbon in the air, a natural process that also weakens or slows down global warming.
It is a scientific fact that global warming is the cause of climate change. That is generally speaking, but to be more specific, it is deforestation that is the cause of flooding in the lowlands. Since these correlations are so obvious, we should also do what is also obvious, and that is to reforest our mountains by planting and growing trees. Mind you, I am not just talking about planting some trees here and there; I am talking about growing trees in all parts of the mountains. Call it any other name you like, but I am talking about reforestation, back to the density of trees that was existing before the uncontrolled logging began.
Mga Anak ng Inang Daigdig (MAID), an organization of young people founded by Fr. Ben Beltran in what used to be the Smokey Mountain dumpsite was awarded about 120 hectares of land in the Montalban mountain area by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), under a Forest Management Agreement (FMA) scheme. These young people have already planted fruit bearing trees in the area, along with cash crop vegetables. As fate would have it, MAID is also helping the members of the Dumagat tribe in the area, who are now also planting their own trees and vegetables. As it is now, the harvests of MAID and the Dumagat tribe are already being sold within the Diocese of Cubao, with the support of the good bishop there. As it also happened, slash and burn farming, locally known as kainginhas slowed down in the area, because the local kaingineros have now found an alternative source of income.
As long as the people in Cubao will keep buying the organic products coming from the farms of MAID and the Dumagat tribe, they will be able to keep as supply chain going that will not only assure their customers of healthy food, they will also assure the entire metropolis with a sustainable source of water forever, aside from preventing floods in the lowlands, hopefully also forever. This is the reason why I am calling it a lifeline to the future, a lifeline of food and water forever.
Indigenous Communities Conservation Areas (ICCA) is an international framework that recognizes the ancient role of the indigenous peoples in conserving their own ancestral domains. They have been doing that forever, and it would make sense to provide them the resources that could make them do that forever. Whether or not the indigenous tribes in the Philippines have been granted their Certificates of Ancestral Domain Title (CADT), they could be tapped to implement reforestation programs in their own areas, following the pattern of the program that MAID started. Where there is a mountain, there is always a watershed. And where there is a watershed, there is always a sustainable source of water that could be tapped for now and for the generations to come. Let’s do this.
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‘Earth Warriors’ Save Mother Earth
By Bobby Starr
NINETY candidates for the 2013 Miss Earth beauty contest have pledged support to protect and preserve Mother Earth during press presentation held at the F1 Hotel Manila in Taguig City recently. With the theme “International Year for Water Cooperation,” this year’s beauty contest focuses on the beauty of the Philippines.
“The Philippines is naturally beautiful — the bodies of water, the land forms, and the Filipinos’ warm and hardworking dispositions are the perfect components for a successful eco-tourism campaign,” says Miss Earth President Ramon Monzon.
Executive Vice President Lorraine Shuck also says that breath-taking eco-tourism spots in the Philippines will be featured during the worldwide televise of the 13th edition of the environment-driven beauty pageant which will be held in Muntinlupa City on December 7.
Shuck says that the candidates will engage in various environmental awareness and conservation activities during their stay in the Philippines. She adds that the Miss Earth contest has produced beauty queens who serve as eco-ambassadors that inspire worldwide cooperation to promote and save the environment. This year’s Philippine representative to the 2013 Miss Earth beauty contest is Angelee delos Reyes, 26, of Olongapo City. The reigning Miss Earth is Teresa Fajksova of the Czech Republic.
Shuck also encourages fans to help choose this year’s Miss Photogenic and Miss Eco-Beauty by visiting the Miss Earth website. She says that Carousel Productions, organizer of the pageant, the Miss Earth Foundation and ABS-CBN Foundation will work together to achieve eco-tourism goals. Organizers say that they will continually call for the cooperation of private organizations and governments to make the environmental efforts sustainable. “The world we live in will reflect on the kind of life we have,” she says.
Shuck adds that the national and worldwide campaigns will not be effective without the help of the government. “We need to work hand-in-hand with our leaders.”
Many are saying that the Miss Earth beauty pageant should be postponed next year in the wake of the devastation brought about by super typhoon Yolanda in some parts of the country recently. I think the beauty pageant should push through despite the recent tragedy in the country. I believe we should not stop in educating and informing our fellow men about our duties and responsibilities in saving Mother Earth. As I see it, only a handful of groups are very active in the campaign the environment. There’s still so much to be done in protecting our planet. And the Miss Earth beauty pageant is only one of the few groups which is in the forefront of the battle to save the environment.