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Is ICT ruining the environment?
Kenya Created: 16 Jul 2007
The infrastructure supporting millions of customers is expanding and changing as technology progresses.

Demand for more powerful computers forces old ones out into the dumps.
This has a potential impact on the environment — countryside, skylines and cityscapes, so it is high time concerns about the impact of ICTs on the environment were raised.

Global legislation and concerned consumers are putting growing pressure on big corporates to do their business in an environmentally friendly way.

For the ICT sector, this might mean, for example, issues of e-waste.

It is generally agreed that tons of e-waste are polluting ground water around landfill sites. The other issue is on electric power demand. This is because ICT networks around the world are making unsustainably massive power demands. In the developed world, major corporates are collaborating on ways to make computing more energy- efficient, thus reducing their ‘carbon footprint’ and its damage on the environment.

Microwave emissions

Radio technology uses radio frequency (RF) fields, otherwise known as electromagnetic fields (EMF), to receive and transmit calls and data.

Some people get concerned that exposure to RF may damage their health. Precautionary guidelines with large safety margins should be set to protect all members of the public.

Mobile phone base stations are springing up all over the place, often with very little warning of their arrival.

Until now, the equipment needed to measure the microwave fields emitted by these base stations has been too expensive to obtain and too complicated to use.

The European Union (EU) has been at the forefront on environmental issues.

Its militancy on ‘green’ ICT has led it to adopt two directives: the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) directive, which makes the manufacturer responsible for collecting and disposing of electronic waste in an environmentally friendly manner, and the Restriction of Hazardous Substance (RoHS) directive, which seeks to restrict the usage of harmful chemicals.

ICT sector is a polluter of the environment

Nearer home, the South African National Environmental Management Act requires that companies face heavy fines and even jail sentences for polluting the environment.

A new Waste Management Bill will also be gazetted next month, governing the disposal of electrical and electronic waste.

Recent research by Gartner confirms that the ICT sector is as bad a polluter of the environment as the aviation industry, contributing two per cent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions. As much as the ICT companies want to remain competitive, they must pay close attention to their environmental strategy.

Some global players are already having initiatives to make computing more environmentally friendly. Green Grid is a partnership of ICT players seeking to improve energy efficiency.

Members include Dell, Microsoft, HP, IBM, Intel and Sun Microsystems. Dell also recently extended its commitment to developing the most energy-efficient products in the industry. IBM announced it was redirecting $1 billion per year across its businesses to dramatically increase the level of energy efficiency in IT.

e-waste polluting Africa

Sadly, one truth about growing ICT consumer demand for new devices and IT is that older goods containing harmful substances are tossed out to make way for the new ones. And with more developed countries reluctant to have this pollution on their turf, it is claimed that many redundant and harmful products find their way to less developed nations.

Developed countries ship their e-waste to developing countries under the auspices of donations.

Because developing countries lack the legislative framework to deal with e-waste, disposing of it is less costly and less stringent than in developed countries and there are no real safety standards in place on handling e-waste.

Most chemicals found in this e-waste are known to cause complications in humans, notably lung cancer, swelling of the brain and liver damage.

Africa has become a popular e-dumping site. Records have it that 75 per cent of e-waste arriving in Lagos, Nigeria, is ‘junk’.

Public awareness of the problem needs to be increased

Scavengers waylay containers laden with e-waste as they’re shipped into the country’s harbours, and then dismantle and mine materials from the e-waste, exposing themselves to the harmful chemicals found in this equipment as they do so.

Many African countries do not have formal methods of disposing of e-waste but South Africa has started several initiatives to deal with it.

ICT companies need to have internal policies for dealing with e-waste and proper infrastructure and management is still needed from the Government.

In addition, public awareness of the problem needs to be increased. For example one way of tackling the issue of e-waste management is designing products fit for recycling.

Mobile phone masts

This is an issue which excites a great deal of emotion.

This is because the roll-out of telecommunication phone masts or base-stations have gone beyond the numbers which are deemed to be acceptable.

Kenya now has thousands of these, and health concerns over such masts have not been properly addressed.

Also these masts do not blend in with their surrounding environment, as they should. It would be great to have the masts in green colour.

Some lobbyists in developed countries are lobbying for green phone mast disguised as a pine tree at leafy areas.

Government regulations need to be strengthened to protect the environment and allay health concerns.

At such a time when the ICT sector is undergoing profound structural change, the ICT companies could permanently scar the beautiful Kenyan landscape as masts can impair the beauty of the landscape.

Mast development should not be automatic

The Government is not doing enough to deal with genuine environmental and health concerns.

It is not doing enough to deal with the concerns of local people. Nor is the Government reacting quickly enough to the expansiveness and mast erecting fever of some of the telecommunication companies.

Mast development should not be automatic. These masts pose a far more serious threat to the environment now than when planning policy concerning telecommunication was first drafted.

Planning guidance should be substantially altered to provide a better balance between the environment and commercial concerns.

Operators should have to justify the need for a new mast when environmental, health or safety concerns are raised. They should consult with local authorities, environmental groups and the telecommunications industry about the same issues.

Need to investigate potential health risks

Operators should have to justify the need for a new mast when environmental or health and safety concerns are raised.

There is need to investigate potential health risks so that developments near schools, hospitals and residential buildings can be made on fair basis.

Telecommunication companies and government should be involved in proper dialogue with local communities at the earliest possible opportunity and should demonstrate in a user-friendly manner whether or not they are able to share masts with other operators.

They should also be encouraged to work with other service providers to use existing street furniture like lampposts, telephone kiosks and poles, rather than installing new ones.

The author is a telecom and ICT strategy analyst Pauline [-at-] nordic.co.ke
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Source: The Standard, Pauline Wangui, 15 Jul 2007

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