NAJIB SAAB 12/11/2020

Although the environment has always impacted human health and wellbeing, the interconnectedness between the two is especially highlighted now, with the world in the grip of the corona virus pandemic, which like many other viruses, is of animal origins. Given this context, the topic of the 13th annual 2020 report of the Arab Forum for Environment and Development (AFED), Health and the Environment in Arab Countries, is particularly timely and relevant, addressing the most prominent health challenges facing humanity.  

Producing the report was in itself a challenging endeavor, not only due to the stressful working conditions created by the pandemic, which put limits on normal interaction, but also due to the consequences of the financial collapse in Lebanon on AFED’s operations. This was compounded by the Beirut port explosion on 4 August 2020, which badly affected the AFED Secretariat and its partners in Beirut, damaging our offices and facilities, besides the human and economic tragedy felt by our staff. Combined with the unsettled situation in the region, this has resulted in a disturbing drop in funding from traditional partners and sponsors, threatening the continued existence of AFED itself.

This report is the 13th the series on the State of Arab Environment, launched by AFED in 2008. The series, which has highlighted environmental challenges and recommended solutions, has inspired policy changes, knowledge sharing, and actions across the Arab region. The series has covered major topics, including climate change, water, energy, the green economy, our ecological footprint, sustainable consumption, financing sustainable development, and environmental education, among others.  

The emergence, spread and impact of many diseases and illnesses can be mitigated by the management of environmental risks, which makes it necessary to tackle the underlying environmental causes. While this is a global fact, it is more significant in the Arab region, where environmental risks are higher and rates of development, in most countries, are slower.

During the last decades, the world has achieved a decline in communicable diseases, while simultaneously witnessing an immense rise in diseases and health damages triggered by poor environmental conditions. The World Health Organization (WHO) has estimated that more than 676,000 Arab citizens will lose their lives prematurely in 2020 due to exposure to conventional environmental risks. The diseases most driven and impacted by environmental causes in the Arab countries include cardiovascular diseases, diarrheal diseases, respiratory infections and cancers. The main environmental risk drivers of these disease groups are ambient and household air pollution, lack of access to clean water, marine pollution, uncontrolled urbanization, land degradation and exposure to waste and harmful chemicals. Unrestrained expansion of residential, industrial and agricultural activities into natural habitats will lead to higher rates of disease transmission, especially viruses, from animals to humans.  

Goal 3 of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) calls for ensuring healthy lives and promoting well-being for all by 2030. Achieving this goal requires addressing the environmental-related burden of disease, as environmental exposures are key factors impacting human health. An integrated ecological public health approach is needed, which recognizes the complex interactions between biological, behavioral, environmental and social factors. Reducing the environmental burden of disease is possible through measures designed and implemented in such a holistic manner.  

The AFED 2020 report discusses the main environmental drivers that impact various aspects of human health in the Arab countries, and proposes an action plan leading to the region meeting SDG Goal 3. These recommendations are placed within an integrated context of sustainable development, by tackling health in terms of social, economic and environmental aspects. The report’s seven chapters deal with the relationship between health, water, air, waste, ocean pollution and climate change, as well as progress and obstacles in achieving the environmental health content of the SDGs.  

Academic AFED members among universities across the Arab region played a key role in developing the report. The core content partners were the Faculty of Health Sciences at the American University of Beirut (AUB), which is also hosting the conference, as well as researchers from Arabian Gulf University in Bahrain, Cairo University and Alexandria University in Egypt. The report also received major contribution from the WHO regional Centre for Environmental Health Action (CEHA). In the time of Corona, AFED conference convenes virtually for the first time, as it wasn’t possible to assemble all participants under one roof, or even dividing them into smaller groups in different venues in more than one country, and link them electronically, as we had hoped.

Overall, exchange of expertise in health and environment-related disciplines across the Arab countries is needed, with regional cooperation intensified, encompassing emergency preparedness to face health and environmental disasters. Establishing a primary health care system, including health education, is an urgent task.  

It is hoped that this report, by highlighting the interrelation between environment and human health, will help to enhance environmental management in the Arab countries in such a way to better protect human health, and to invigorate the health systems to better respond to the impact of environmental factors.