Sustainable solutions

Monday 15 September 2008

BOOK >> A Community Guide to Environmental Health Jeff Conant and Pam Fadem Hesperian Foundation June 2008

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If you have ever felt helpless about the many environmental risks that you are exposed to each day, help is now at hand. The Community Guide to Environmental Health provides experiences from around 120 communities in 33 countries on what people could do to minimize the risk to health. While most of the efforts require community involvement, some can be tackled at a personal level too. One could read through the 23 chapters to get a perfect guide to healthy living. The best has been reserved for the end, where the authors have given several instances on how communities have tackled environmental health issues the legal way.

Though the book is targeted towards both the rich and the poor, urban and rural, it provides examples that are more pertinent to the poor and the marginalized.It explains the relation between natural resources and health and what should be done to minimize the harmful impact. For example, understanding the reason for spread of vector borne diseases makes it easier for a community to understand the importance of vector control.

Issues taken up include water, air, toxins, sanitation, waste, agriculture and nutrition. Contemporary threats such as genetically modified foods are explained and solutions given. It comprises first-hand experience of communities, their ideas, methods, stories and solutions, on protecting the natural environment and maintaining health. These show that even small steps and efforts can positively affect the environment we live in. The language is simple and illustrations have been used to emphasize the important points.

Stories about successful community initiatives around the world, make the guide an interesting read. Even those initiatives that are not directly focused on health are woven well into its theme. This makes it a useful tool for those interested in understanding the environmental movements in the world.

The authors suggest that solutions in one part of the world can work in other parts too. Communities are encouraged to find their own innovative solutions through modifications. Activities, discussion, inspirational stories and instructions for simple technologies such as safe toilets are used to show that risk reduction has positive public health impact. For instance, growing mushrooms on areas polluted by oil spill can clean up the environment. Then there is an example of how pit toilets can help increase the number of trees in the area. Numerous such examples are given in the book.

It is amply clear from the examples that only those communities that have some control over natural resources, benefit. Most of the examples are built up on this. But instances of the community having access to the natural resources are few. In India, for example, the government owns water and forests. Poverty and politics often are major roadblocks. A story in the book talks about how a community should find ways of reducing exposure to pesticide by using proper method of spraying and equipment. Considering existing work conditions in other developing countries where labour is cheap and easily available, this may not be possible on the ground. Another solution given by the guide is to switch to sustainable agriculture and reduce the use of pesticides. This again is difficult unless you own the land. Since that is not the case, not all the solutions may be relevant in the Indian context.

Chalo Yamuna for our environment is in our hands
Down to Earth
Amit Shanker

But overall, health workers, teachers, community activists, development professionals and the community itself can gain a lot from the publication that was conceptualized in 1996.

Hesperian Foundation also brings out Where there is No Doctor, a guide for what people can do in places where health professionals do not like to work. This guide is considered the best manual for people living in poor and rural areas and is even recommended by who. The foundation has taken its work forward in the Community Guide To Environmental Health. It is a good resource for putting most aspects of the ever-changing environment into perspective.

Like other books and newsletters by Hesperian, a non-profit publisher, this book too is open access and is available free on the web. To further reach communities, the books are provided at half price to community organizations. Hesperian also distributes free copies.

Though the book is in English and Spanish, and most people who would benefit from it are not conversant with the language, Hesperian gives funds to community organizations to get the book translated.

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