Environmental Sustainability Practices with ICT

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Implementing Environmental Sustainability Practices in Developing Countries through ICT

Wordcount: 4370 (excluding references)

  1. Introduction

An outstanding attributes of ICT (information and communications technology) is its crosscutting aspect and its speed, with regards to quick adaptation (Pohjola, 2003). For instance, about four decades ago television broadcasting, landline telephone and postal deliveries were the key mediators in the flow of information, but this flow of information occurred only on one direction. User-generated content was very minimal. However, in the current day and age, countries around the world have been more interconnected via several facilities of ICT and the flow of information happens in multiple directions, with very heavy influence of user-generated content especially through social media (Yin et al., 2012). ICT has not only emerged to be a significant industry on itself but has pervaded all aspects in day-to-day life. Studies have indicated that ICT has a remarkable impact on socio-economic development generally, and environmental sustainability specifically. Whereas this could be true, in developing countries such as Nigeria little research has been achieved in pinpointing the approaches through which ICT could be harnessed for environmental sustainability. There exists no consensus on the definition of ‘developing country’ from the United Nations or the World Bank, and this study has adopted the definition of developing country that has been offered by Library of Congress, which is a country whereby: “the majority of population makes far less income, and has significantly weaker social indicatorsand often lacks basic public services-than the population in highly-industrialized countries” (LOC, 2016, p. 1).This paper is based on literature review and it investigates how ICT can be harnessed in implementing environmental sustainability practices in developing countries.

  1. Overview of environmental crisis

One global reality existing today is environmental crisis. The International Telecommunications Union, a specialized agency of the United Nations, has made the affirmation that the existing increasing concern about life on planet earth is heavily influenced by the impact of humans on the environment, particularly natural environment (Schwabach, 2006). In that manner, improving resource management practices, raising awareness, getting to sustainable development as well as enhancing the environmental performance makes up the key issues which require worldwide attention. International community has asserted this point by encompassing environmental sustainability to be part of MDGs (Millennium Development Goals). Achieving environmental sustainability nonetheless demands strategies that are innovative. In light of this, awareness of the nature of environmental challenges in developing countries is a key requirement. With regards to developing countries, environmental crisis happens to be a real occurrence and the impact has been widely felt physically, economically and socially.

In the Fox (2004) study assessing environmental degradation in one developing country, Tanzania, the study observed that there are big environmental disasters in that country to affect that big rivers were drying up. Practices leading to this included severe deforestation and clearance of natural vegetation for agriculture purposes. Apart from drying up of rivers and increased river sedimentation, reduced rainfall has also impacted on the health of the citizens in the region and has undermined the possibility of sustainable development. Tanzania has been shown to be requiring a number of approaches so as to address these challenges that have been posed by such an environmental crisis. Affirming a capacity of ICTs in enhancing the environmental sustainability in developing countries, ICTs have been contended to be having the capability of playing a significant role in developmental and economic sectors (Kapurubandara & Lawson, 2006). Nonetheless ICT has been demonstrated to be complex and multifaceted, and its environmental impact could both be beneficial or adverse. This implies that a careful planning on how to integrate ICT in environmental sustainability practices of the developing countries is highly important. As a result of this, the following section analyses whether and how ICT can assist in delivering the environmental sustainability goal in developing countries.

  1. ICT for environmental sustainability practices in developing countries

Houghton (2009) as well as Minasyan (2006) observed that an intricate relationship exists between ICT and the environment. This is due to the observation that ICTs could have both positive and negative roles with regards to the environment. Some of the positive roles have been demonstrated to be better energy efficiency, recycling and substitution for travel/transport; negative roles have been demonstrated to be energy consumption, increasing amounts of e-waste such as from discarded CRT monitors and low life cycle of the products (ITU, 2008). Being a medium for networking and information, it has been demonstrated that ICT has the capability of enabling citizens in the developing countries to adopt the role of environmental enforcement agents and alert the authorities to acts of environmental infringement. A host of important environmental aspects have been identified whereby ICT could be used and as such enhance environmental sustainability.

  1. Environmental studies

The possible role of ICT in environmental sustainability practices starts with the usefulness of ICT in environmental studies. International Telecommunications Union has reiterated that ICT offers an unprecedented capability to collecting and processing environmental data which far outweighs the capability of any person and may encompass the whole terrestrial system. From the complex environment, ICT could assist in simplifying and understanding impact of mankind on environment. This can be achieved through the aid of increasingly interconnected and powerful platforms of computing which have been combined with large information databases. Moreover, ICT has been identified as a significant tool for carrying out empirical studies relating to environmental issues. It has previously been observed that “new Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) may represent appropriate tools to support environmental research and its transmission to policy-makers and the general public” (Chiabai et al., 2013, p.89). In aggregate, using ICT to carry out environmental studies is associated with a host of economic and scientific benefits as well as having a political implication. Some of the scientific benefits have been shown to be enhanced multidisciplinary studies. Political implications of using ICT are that interface with the policy-makers can be created, and citizens can participate in the decision-making processes concerning environmental sustainability practices.

  1. Environmental observation

ICT can be used for environmental observation in the developing countries (Houghton, 2009). Generally, the environmental systems are made up of terrestrial and aquatic categories. The terrestrial component is made up of forests, grasslands, mountains and so forth whereas the aquatic components is made up of marine, freshwater, wetlands and so forth. Tools of ICT that can be employed in these developing countries include remote sensing, telemetric systems among others. This observation can lead to better monitoring of the environmental practices. The e-monitoring systems can be used as environmental screening tools as well as mapping tools which offer the relevant authorities reliable data with which to highlight pollution issues, and these can then be applied for further evaluating and analysing the environmental concern. E-monitoring could offer both summary data and detailed data in the developing countries for both environmental and demographic attributes.

For example, ICT has been applied in monitoring the deforestation of the Amazon forest in Brazil; satellite imagery is used in identifying deforestation and this is then mapped on a geographic information system (GIS). Data from this GIS has been made public in Brazil in recent years and this offers greater public awareness on the environmentally destructive practices. Data from this GIS has been identified to have been very instrumental in effecting policy changes in Brazil, which have included crafting, implementing and enforcing legislations for controlling deforestation, and gazetting more protected areas. It is common for forest rangers to go to areas showing deforestation activity from the satellite imagery received in combination with Global Positioning System (GPS), and then take necessary action to prevent further deforestation activity. Nonetheless some challenges have been identified in this approach: the GIS offer low resolution and thus offer only a rough identification concerning the deforested area; the Amazon is big but the rangers have limited capacity as such the data from the system is not used in real time (Hayes & Rajao, 2011).

Moreover, in developing countries where the internet penetration is low, radio calls and mobile telephones could be applied in reporting environmental degradation activities and for facilitating community mobilization to confront such activities.

  1. Mitigation of climate change

Activities to mitigate against climate change are targeted at minimizing the negative impacts of the climate change on the environment. Several manners exist which ICTs can be applied in mitigating against environmental impacts in developing countries, such as through observation and monitoring as previous mentioned, through enabling better efficiency in utilization of resources, via dematerialization for example e-books instead of paper-printed books, through substitution for transport for example video conferencing instead of travel. A number of studies such as Patt & Schrotter (2008) exist showing how ICT can assist in mitigating against climate change. Developing countries face a host of challenges with regards to providing infrastructure as the economies grow. The challenges in meeting the growing demands have been shown to be driving the investments in these developing countries towards solutions that present more energy efficiency.

For example, limitations on the capacity of electricity generation and the transmission have resulted into more development of ‘smart grid’ in China and India. This has led to an improved energy efficiency level and has reduced the expansion rate of the coal-powered electricity plants. These smart grids have been shown by Boccaletti et al. (2008) to have resulted into reduced carbon emissions as a result of lower use of the coal-powered plants. ICTs have played a major role in improving the efficiency in addition to controlling and managing power grids. The impact that ICT plays in the smart grids has been detailed in studies that have been issued by Bolton and Foxon (2011).

With the investments in infrastructure for the next three decades taking place currently, this presents opportunities for developing countries to jump into the smart grid bandwagon, minimise power loss and gain from greater energy efficiency. For instance, in India, North Delhi Power has invested in smart grid (Balijepalli et al., 2010).

However, some concerns have been raised; increased efficiency might result into more use of the ICT-enabled energy saving features, which consequently leads to more energy being used and this cancels out the previous gains. Recognizing this challenge, the government of China, has recently come up with the ‘China Motor Systems Energy Conservation Program’ which would assist in meeting the targets of energy efficiency (McKane et al., 2003).

  1. Easing environmental pressure

After the collection and storage of the environmental data via observation, a number of ICT tools could be used in computing and processing so as to carry out analysis. For instance, environmental modelling software as well as grid computing has been of assistance in the awareness of how the ecosystems function as well as the environmental complexities. Developing countries, especially in Africa, are highly dependent on agriculture even though the modes of farming are largely inefficient. Managing, monitoring and mapping waterways, forests and lands are some of the important actions that improve the sustainability of the environment and efficiency of practices in such countries (Longley, 2005).

Geographic information systems offer significant opportunities in waterway and land management and monitoring in Africa, Himalayan region and South East Asia (Minasyan, 2006). Just like everywhere else, information is very important in making it possible for people to undertake choices that are more sustainable and get the benefits from their activities, in addition to support, awareness and education. In developing countries there are various examples on how mobile phones as well as wireless connection can offer a massive opportunity in handling environmental pressure where fixed telephone lines are not developed (World Bank, 2012). For instance, initiatives include using geographical information system in Lake Victoria of East Africa, to offer support to the management of natural resources (Scheren et al., 2000). In the Pearl River Delta of China, it is common to have an integrated ecosystem modelling, sensing and monitoring (Weng, 2001). By observing how vulnerable the rural communities in developing countries are, Tyler & Fajber (2009) observed the significance of having information access. For instance, in the Philippines, one mobile service provider SMART partnered with Manila Observatory to offer telemetric rain gauge and telephones in areas which are prone to environmental disasters like landslides. The local farmers assess the rain gauge and submit the information to the Manila Observatory, whereas the Manila Observatory could also utilise these telephones to give the farmers early warnings (Houghton, 2010).

  1. Adaptation to climate change

Offering early warnings as well as monitoring of events that are induced by climate change, such as tsunami or drought, plays a very significant role. In developing countries, ICT has enabled a number of initiatives.

One example is a network that has been funded by USAID called Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET). This network brings together national and regional partners in offering information concerning the arising and changing issues on food security. The FEWS NET participants in developing countries analyse and monitor the information concerning the climate so as to understand the possible threats and effects on livelihoods. After they have been identified, the FEWS NET utilizes a host of ICTs in aiding the decision makers (Verdin et al., 2005).

A second example is the PreventionWeb which caters to the information demands of the community seeking disaster risk reduction. The ICT-enabled activities under PreventionWeb include tools for exchanging information. ICTs have also been utilized in coming up with impact models, that have been used by decision makers and practitioners in making predictions on the agricultural effects of the climate change. Such impact models have been used in developing countries such as South Africa, whereby it was shown that there exists a correlation between a lowered production of dry land staple and heightened historical temperature (Dube & Jury, 2000); in Nigeria whereby an EPIC model was used in giving forecasts on the crop yields in the twenty first century (Adejuwon, 2008); in Egypt whereby the production of crops under the existing climatic conditions was compared with the conditions that were modelled for the year 2050 (Abdel-Gawadh et al., 2004), as well as the Thornton et al. (2009) study which mapped African regions in terms of their vulnerability to climate change. In the same manner, GIS as well as remote sensing are used by the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) to investigate the patterns of rainfall in Africa and Asia.

By identifying the vulnerable areas, ICTs make it possible to implement various responses, whereby information networks have a significant role to play.

  1. Technology transfer for environment sustainability practices

ICTs play a key role in technology transfer for environment sustainability practices. The Bali Action Plan entailed that developed countries assist the developing countries to pursue mitigation activities appropriate to each nation with regards to sustainable development, and at the same time not compromise the growth of those countries, through a transfer of technology and finance from the developed countries. One such technology transfer is through a clearinghouse for technology information called TT:clear. This provides an internet-based platform for information sharing in order to access a number of information sources such as case studies (Houghton, 2009). An objective is in offering information that is valuable to the various stakeholders on matters related to technology transfer, in order to mitigate and adapt to climate change. The TT:clear platform targets developing countries to consider the opportunities regarding technology transfer by assisting such countries gain an awareness of the available technologies. The platform also makes it possible to exchange views and experiences on developing and transferring technology.

Another platform that exists is called GIS Development. This refers to a Geospatial Communication Network promoting the utilization of GIS applications and the GIS technology in developing countries. GIS Development aids the governments and communities in the developing countries to enhance their management capabilities, policies and productivity through facilitation of knowledge transfer. Moreover, GIS Development fosters increasing network of persons interested in geo-informatics, encouraging a scientific know-how exchange (Ramachandra & Kumar, 2010).

By fusing the information provided with education and research, these platforms offer experience, expertise and information touching on adapting to environmental changes. Such flows of information play significant roles in the transfer of technology into the developing countries.

  1. Planning and environmental strategy

Good decision-making needs to happen using the information that is available. As such, environmental information which has been picked by observing and has been evaluated by using the technology happens to be relevant in the decision-making, planning and formulation of policies. By utilizing ICTs, such a process entails classifying a host of environmental issues (Houghton, 2009). For instance, the environmental information that can be applied in agriculture could be elicited via using ICTs. The International Telecommunications Union has argued that the monitoring systems which use ICTs could be created to predict the effect of the manmade and natural disasters in developing as well as developed countries. For example, one important tool in the environmental planning is the Environmental Impact Assessment (Hayes & Rajao, 2011). A developing country seeking for loans from World Bank needs to demonstrate environmental planning which is produced via an Environmental Impact Assessment. This shows that ICTs could be of assistance in this respect by, among other things, enhancing the communications between the different stakeholders in the collection of the environmental information. Apart from this stakeholder engagement, ICTs could also assist in making informed decisions, delivery of policy, learning and feedback as well as capacity building in the institutions (Ospina & Heeks, 2011).

  1. The Resilience Assessment Benchmarking and Impact Toolkit (RABIT) framework

One framework that can be applied is the Resilience Assessment Benchmarking and Impact Toolkit (RABIT) which has recently been used by Ospina & Heeks (2016) to gauge the effect on resilience of ICTs in two developing countries, Uganda and Costa Rica. Instead of trying to be a kind of cross-country benchmarking, the RABIT framework can be applied on a country-specific basis, and it would get the specific country’s representatives to undertake a discussion on the link between ICTs and the sub-properties of resilience which are rapidity, equality, diversity and flexibility, scale, self-organization, robustness, learning and redundancy. From this, the developing country representatives can derive relevance, meaning, priority and so forth, for their specific country. This can emerge to be a productive approach forward in looking to strengthen the link between ICTs and the resilience in developing countries. The RABIT framework is especially appropriate for developing countries since they are most vulnerable to the impacts of stressors and external shocks, including being the first to be affected by climate change as a result of lacking mitigating infrastructure. Some of the key characteristics or ‘markers’ of resilience are shown in table 1 below:

Table 1: Markers of resilience according to the RABIT framework

Attribute of resilience


Attributes that are foundational


Reflective thinking;

Capacity building


Local leadership;

Consensus-building and collaboration


Institutional capacity;

Physical preparedness

Attributes that are enabling


Accountability and openness;

Participation and inclusiveness

Flexibility and diversity

Mechanism for innovation;

Decision-making that is adaptable


Networks that are intra-level;

Networks that are multi-level


Resource mobilization;

Rapid detection and assessment of issues


Functional overlap;

Substitutability of resource

Adapted from: Ospina & Heeks (2016, p.20)

The markers are equally applicable in developing countries down to the community level. The RABIT framework can be implemented through document review followed by conducting focus groups, semi-structured interviews and surveys on the communities in developing countries (Ospina & Heeks, 2016).

ICTs could be used to strengthen the resilience in the developing countries. In 2012, a report by the World Bank highlighted the roles that ICTs play in preventing the impacts of emergencies induced by climate change in the developing countries of Africa (World Bank, 2012). The report sought to achieve an understanding of the trends of ICTs impacts that could be existing in developing countries that had analogous structures of political economy, in relation to leveraging the ICT in the public sectors. From this World Bank report, GIS aids the local governments to identify on a map, the zones that are at flood risk, gauge the vulnerability of the community towards the floods and plan for new infrastructure that would prevent floods. Some ICTs tools used include Early Warning Systems which were used in simulating patterns of weather and predicting disasters (World Bank, 2012). In this way, ICTs can be said to have the potential of strengthening the resilience in the developing countries. This is also referred to as e-resilience. This can be done through improving each of the attributes of resilience as noted by (Ospina & Heeks, 2011): rapidity, equality, diversity and flexibility, scale, self-organization, robustness, learning and redundancy. For instance, with regards to redundancy, mobile phones or other ICTs could be used in delivering resources whereas with regards to robustness, GIS can utilised in planning where physical defences such as dykes can be located.

  1. The future and potential challenges of using the Resilience Assessment Benchmarking and Impact Toolkit (RABIT) framework for implementing environmental sustainability practices in one developing country, Tanzania

Governmental as well as non-governmental organizations in Tanzania report that some of the environmental problems in the country include unsustainable and illegal deforestation as most Tanzanians rely on firewood for energy needs; overgrazing an unsustainable management of range due to large cattle sizes putting pressure on the natural carrying capacity of the land; high levels of water and air pollution; as well as unsustainable and illegal exploitation of wildlife (Mniwasa & Shauri, 2001).

The RABIT framework can be applied to improve environmental sustainability practices in Tanzania. The RABIT framework helps in building resilience and this presents huge opportunities for introducing considerable and lasting changes across Tanzania with regards to environmental sustainability practices. ICTs can support the relevance of the RABIT framework in Tanzania. There is an increasing penetration of mobile phone usage in Tanzania, more than any other ICT in the country (Van Genuchten, 2012; Fox, 2004). There has also been a rise in social media use in Tanzania, and this has especially helped with the rapidity attribute of the RABIT framework. Users can generate the content on where they see environmental degradation activities. The fast pace of the uptake and penetration of mobile telephony in Tanzania has supported many breakthrough ideas in environmental sustainability, as was observed by Fox (2004).

However, these developments have been accompanied by considerable challenges and potential threats to the efficacy of ICT in supporting the implementation of environmentally sustainable practices, in Tanzania. One such challenge lies in the scale and sustainability of the programs initiated. The initiatives are relatively ad-hoc and happen in individual isolated regions of Tanzania, such as the study by Fox (2004) which concentrated the initiatives in only in the regions of Usangu Catchment, Ihefu Wetland and Great Ruaha River Ecosystem. As such, thus there are very limited large-scale and sustainable ICT-supported initiatives taking place in Tanzania. In order to bring out the total potential of ICT in the country, there needs to be a new inter-regional collaboration in order to enlarge the scale of the impacts.

A second challenge in Tanzania is in the pace of change of ICTs. Technology is a very dynamic concept, and one thing that might work perfectly today may be rendered obsolete in few years (Chiabai et al., 2013). For instance, mobile telephone calls have largely replaced radio calls in regions of Tanzania that had inexistent telephone landlines (Van Genuchten, 2012), and in turn mobile phone calls are increasingly being replaced by instant messaging apps such as Whatsapp (Shearman, Olomi, & Patel, 2013). This has happened in a space of less than ten years, all with the aim of achieving better efficiency. Similarly, radio communication which was popular in Tanzania where landline infrastructure was non-existent has increasingly been replaced by mobile telephony (Balijepalli et al., 2010).

The costs involved in replacing the obsolete ICTs could be challenging to a poor country like Tanzania, especially if incurred on a large scale.

  1. Conclusion and Recommendations

The paper has observed that an intricate relationship exists between ICT and the environment. This is due to the observation that ICTs could have both positive and negative roles with regards to the environment. Some of the positive roles have been demonstrated to be better energy efficiency, recycling and substitution for travel/transport; negative roles have been demonstrated to be energy consumption, increasing amounts of e-waste such as from discarded CRT monitors and low life cycle of the products. Being a medium for networking and information, it has been demonstrated that ICT has the capability of enabling citizens in the developing countries to adopt the role of environmental enforcement agents and alert the authorities to acts of environmental infringement. A host of important environmental aspects have been identified whereby ICT could be used and as such enhance environmental sustainability. ICT plays significant role in environmental studies as it offers an unprecedented capability to collecting and processing environmental data; environmental observation through tools such as remote sensing, telemetric systems among others; mitigating climate change through activities such as developing ‘smart grid’ in China and India; easing environmental pressure through environmental modelling software as well as grid computing; adaptation to climate change through tools such as Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET); technology transfer as a result of the Bali Action Plan; planning and environmental strategy through tools such as the Environmental Impact Assessment, and building resilience through rapidity, equality, diversity and flexibility, scale, self-organization, robustness, learning and redundancy. In future, the technologies that are likely to support these ICT activities in developing countries with respect to environmentally sustainable practices include mobile telephony, internet, social media, digital data, cloud computing and increasing presence of smartphones. Challenges lie in the scale and sustainability of the programs initiated as well as the rapidly shifting technology that may be expensive for the ICT initiatives in the long run. Moreover, ICT has been demonstrated to be complex and multifaceted, and its environmental impact could both be beneficial or adverse. ICT can assist in delivering the environmental sustainability goal in developing countries but there needs to be a new multi-national collaboration level in order to enlarge the scale of the impacts of the ICT initiatives in environmental sustainability practices. One framework that can be applied is the Resilience Assessment Benchmarking and Impact Toolkit (RABIT) which has recently been applied successfully in two developing countries.


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