College of Agriculture, Engineering
and Science (CAES)

Highlights from the EcoHealth Conference.

Africa Hosts 8th Biennial EcoHealth Conference

EcoHealth International, in partnership with UKZN, the KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) Convention Bureau, and South African and Durban Tourism hosted the 8th Biennial EcoHealth Conference recently.

Held under the theme: Working Together for a Healthy, Just and Sustainable Planetthe Conference brought various stakeholders together to discuss innovative ways to protect the health of people, animals, and ecosystems in a sustainable manner.

As the first EcoHealth Conference to be held in Africa, the four-day event was jam-packed with a range of activities and was attended by government officials, traditional leaders, researchers, students and senior academics from local, African and international institutions.

EcoHealth International President and Honorary Professor at UKZN, Moses Chimbari described how the virtual EcoHealth torch was passed on to 10 globally positioned destinations within 24 hours with each session lasting 2 hours.

Welcoming guests, he expressed his excitement at finally hosting this hybrid event following the COVID-19 pandemic, looting and more recently, floods in KZN. Chimbari said he was hopeful that the conference would spark meaningful discussions leading to important resolutions.

Opening the Conference, Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Head of the College of Health Sciences, Professor Busisiwe Ncama said it was an honour for the University to be part of the first Biennial EcoHealth Conference hosted in Africa. Reflecting on the theme, she said it resonated well with UKZN’s four research flagships of Social Cohesion, African City of the Future, African Health, and Big Data and Informatics.

Ncama reviewed the KZN Ecohealth Programme located in the College of Health Sciences and its far-reaching approach of engaging with communities to address the challenges they face. She added: ‘The ecohealth approach is inclusive and ensures that disciplines are not siloed but are intertwined. I’m very pleased that African researchers and ecohealth practitioners in Africa are presenting the majority of papers. This means that the sessions will address many of the challenges and opportunities that are important to improve African people’s lives in a sustainable manner, thereby contributing to global efforts to make planet Earth safe for the next generation.’

In his keynote address, Professor Godwell Nhamo of the University of South Africa (Unisa) and Exxaro Chair said that one of his greatest achievements was the introduction of environmental and public health programmes in Zimbabwe. He showcased some of the books he has published on environmental sustainability, saying that his favourite is NetZero Emissions by 2050, which is yet to be published.

Nhamo’s address, titled Ecohealth in the Era of Sustainable Development, Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) and Industry 4.0 presented five key messages, namely, ‘increasing disasters have both a direct and indirect impact on ecohealth and disease patterns; DRR and climate change are inseparably linked to attainment of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs); the most common vector-borne diseases such as malaria, bilharzia and cholera have established linkages with climate change, with studies also showing potential linkages with the Coronavirus; complex global ecohealth challenges in the context of the SDGs, DRR and the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), can only be addressed when health and other professionals start asking difficult questions and finding simple solutions; and humankind must learn to live with natural disasters, including climate change as they are here to stay.’

The Conference included numerous parallel sessions one of which, on Harnessing Local Knowledge Systems in Communities for Sustainable Development, featured two young speakers Ms Kiara Reddy and Ms Meron Fanta from Pietermaritzburg Girls’ High School. The Grade 8 learners shared how recycling initiatives at school can improve learners’ habits at home – which saw Chimbari rewarding them with research funding worth R15 000. Dr Tafadzwa Mindu recounted the ways in which edutainment and infographics can promote knowledge amongst learners about schistosomiasis, commonly known as bilharzia. Ms Shona Thorne addressed the need to look at brokering as a possible way to translate knowledge into action and promote sustainable development, and Ms Melissa Bates focused on the co-benefits of indigenous trees in protecting sensitive ecosystems.

Guest speaker, Dr Salome Bukachi from the University of Nairobi, reviewed how common African diseases such as trichomoniasis, ebola and the tsetse fly are controlled or eliminated. She discussed how the missing links in the advancement of surveillance systems, treatment regimes and drug development lead to the spread of diseases in communities and noted the fundamental anthropologic questions needed to be asked for effective public engagement.

Dr Toendepi Shonhe from Unisa evaluated climate change and agrarian relations in the Global South using a case study from Zimbabwe on family farms. He highlighted the direct link that exists between climate change and crop and animal production and noted how developed countries contribute the largest carbon emissions, resulting in carbon inequality. Shonhe focused on how climate change policies are largely driven by the Global North and used tobacco as an example of a commodity that encourages climate change at the expense of the Global South.

Other parallel sessions included: Health, Environment and Disease; The Power of Local Knowledges for Ecohealth; and Celebrating Indigenous and Diverse Knowledges in Ecohealth Approaches to Health. A workshop on Gender in One Health as well as a special plenary panel discussion on the Synergies of One Health, Planetary Health and EcoHealth took place with past EcoHealth International Presidents, Professors Kerry Arabena, Jakob Zinsstag, Pierre Horwitz and Margot Parkes, chaired by Chimbari.

The Conference included a range of other activities such as a beach clean-up along Durban harbour led by Dr Refilwe Mofokeng a postdoctoral researcher in the School of Health Sciences as well as a testimony from Mr Ndabezitha Inkosi Mathenjwa a traditional leader of Ingwavuma community, located in the Umkhanyakude District in northern KZN on how the KZN Ecohealth Programme had worked well with his community for more than eight years.

The Conference can be viewed on UKZN’s YouTube Channel or click to watch: Day 1Day 2 and Day 3.

Words: Hlengiwe Khwela

Photographs: Albert Hirasen and Ntsika Nduli