Protecting the environment and communities of the African Great Lakes region in a changing climate

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In May, The Nature Conservancy (TNC) in collaboration with the Lake Tanganyika Authority hosted the African Great Lakes Conference (AGLC) in Entebbe, Uganda. The conference, with support from the MacArthur Foundation, The Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund and the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), brought together researchers, technical experts and policy makers to discuss sustainable development, human and environmental health and biodiversity conservation in the African Great Lakes Region.

Thanks to advocacy efforts of Population Reference Bureau (PRB) Population, Health and Environment (PHE) was added as a thematic area of the conference. This provided a platform for Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH) to share lessons learnt and best practices from scaling up our Village Health and Conservation Team (VHCT) model in Bwindi—home to the critically endangered mountain gorillas—to communities around Mt. Elgon National Park in Uganda and Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The communities we work with do not live next to the lakes discussed in the conference, but they are all part of the greater African Great Lakes Region basin. Mt. Elgon serves as an important water catchment area for Lake Victoria and conservation efforts must protect water sources for the millions of people who rely on the lake for agriculture, food and water.

Mt. Elgon is an important water catchment area for Lake Victoria.

The PHE approach takes a holistic view at conservation acknowledging the effects population and human health can have on conservation. When people have poor health, and use water sources to clean and graze livestock this influences the people downstream—a quick and efficient spread of water-borne illnesses.

What CTPH and other PHE partners are doing is improving human and ecosystem health while protecting biodiversity. Furthermore, PHE activities can help mitigate the effects of climate change that are already beginning to show in the African Great Lakes region. Core to PHE programs is to promote contraception as a basic human right and increase access to family planning, reproductive health and maternal and child health services as key to limiting rapid population growth rates and enhancing adaptation to climate change. Before our program in Bwindi began the average family had 10 children and today this is down to 7 thanks in large part to CTPH efforts to introduce modern contraceptives to families in the area. Sixty percent of women in our communities are using family planning, well above the 30% national average. We believe that our VHCT model will contribute to the same type of change in Mt. Elgon and Virunga.

Sabinyo volcano and thick forest, habitat of the endangered Mountain gorilla Virunga National Park, Democratic Republic of Congo

Chebet Phanis, a VHCT from Chepkwasta Parish in Bukwo District, Uganda has seen in just a few short months that the VHCT model has already had a positive impact on her community around Mt. Elgon National Park. She has seen more families building covered pit latrines, which improves hygiene and sanitation by reducing contamination and spread of disease. And before the program began many women in her community were using indigenous medicines as family planning, but now more women want to use modern contraceptives. There are still barriers to overcome in terms of family planning—mainly access to contraceptives in these remote communities and educating families, especially men, on the health and conservation benefits of family planning. CTPH will continue to strengthen VHCT efforts and our next step is to train 45 VHCTs in the Mt. Elgon region to provide injectable contraceptives. Allowing trained Community Health Volunteers to give three monthly interval injectable contraceptives became a national policy for Uganda’s Ministry of Health when FHI360 partnered with CTPH, and three other organizations to pilot test the approach with our VHCTs.

Chebet Phanis is a VHCT from Bukwo District. She was trained by CTPH in 2016.

Through sharing experiences and connecting with technical experts, CTPH is energized to continue our important community-based work to promote biodiversity conservation by improving health and livelihoods. The conference adopted five PHE resolutions around family planning and addressing high population growth; the multi-sectoral integrated PHE approach; mainstreaming water-borne illnesses in health service delivery for communities around the great lakes; and increasing women’s participation and leadership and girl’s education in the great lakes region. The AGLC closed with parties reconfirming their commitment to protecting and conserving the African Great Lakes region through sustainable development.

PHE Stakeholders, including CTPH CEO Dr. Gladys, pose for a group photo during the AGL Conference

CTPH extends a thank you to PRB and the Lake Victoria Basin Commission for their leadership in mainstreaming PHE into the African Great Lakes Conference. We would also like to thank the Global Development Network for the Japanese Social Development Fund grant, which provided funding to scale up the CTPH VHCT model to Virunga and Mt. Elgon.

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