Press releases

Monday 23 Aug 1999

10th anniversary of GRID-Arendal

23 Aug 1999 - Speech by Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland, Director-General, World Health Organization, on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of GRID-Arendal

Dr Töpfer, Executive Director of UNEP,
Mr State Secretary Simonsen,
Dr Christoffersen, Chairman of the Board, and Dr Tveitdal, Managing Director of GRID-Arendal, Director-General Strand of NORAD,
President Lash of the World Resources Institute,
Distinguished Representatives of the Russian and Arctic Indigenous Peoples and of the Government of Norway,
Mr Mayor of Arendal,

Exactly 10 years ago I was on this very same podium on the occasion of the birth of GRID-Arendal. It gives me great pleasure to be back to join in the celebration of the 10th birthday of this Global Resource Information Database.

I remember that day 10 years ago very well - not only because coming to late summer Arendal is always a delight - but because those of us who took part in that event felt that we were present at an important creation. GRID was new. GRID was an expression of new technological advances put at the service of the environment - and ultimately human health and development.

For me, GRID-Arendal was also a concrete follow-up of our recommendations in the World Commission on Environment and Development. Norway's readiness to found and fund GRID created a new model for mobilising non-profit capacities outside the United Nations to support a UN Organization.

Today, 10 years later, reviewing the achievements, we can call GRID-Arendal an environmental success story. Using that ultimate test of success of the late 1990s - the number of visitors or "hits" on its website - GRID-Arendal passes with flying colours. In the past decade its web site has received 3.6 million hits. A record number of 36,000 maps and graphics have been downloaded from its database.

But also the scope and quality of its work bear proof to its achievements. Activities have involved the state of the environment in cities in Russia and China, in Central and Eastern Europe. Its work has most lately been acknowledged through the prestigious Princes' Award in Copenhagen in June this year. My congratulations go to UNEP, to Dr Christophersen, chairman of the Board, and to Dr Tveidtal and his dedicated team.

Why would the head of the World Health Organization be celebrating an environmental success? It is quite simple: Human health and the health of our ecosystem are inseparable.

The burden of environmentally-related disease is already substantial, and much environmental disease still goes unrecognized. We know that there are millions of preventable deaths which could, and should, be avoided.

We face formidable challenges to health and the environment on a global and regional basis.

One billion people worldwide lack adequate water supplies. Three billion people lack proper and hygienic sanitation facilities. Lack of access to safe water and sanitation are key risk factors for diarrhoeal diseases, which remain one of the major killers of children.

Poor water, sanitation and hygiene practices add to this disease burden, causing an estimated 7-8% of all disease and injury in developing countries. Outdoor air pollution accounts for 3-4% of the burden of premature mortality and disability in Eastern Europe, and causes at least half a million deaths worldwide each year.

We also need to address the global dimensions of problems related to urban air pollution, transboundary pollution, contamination of our water, air and soil resources. Rapid urbanisation and industrialisation, in the face of globalisation of the world economy, pose challenges to us all in terms of ensuring sustainable development and healthy living conditions in the next millenium.

Ozone depletion and climate change threaten the survival and quality of life of all people. Agriculture and land-use practices have significant impacts on processes of desertification, which contribute to food insecurity, poverty and ill health.

The issues are complicated by the fact that the first impacts may be far from the source of the problem. Here in Norway, we have experienced this with acid rain. For global warming, fossil fuel combustion processes in Europe may eventually threaten the daily lives of the people of the low-lying island state of the Maldives. Global warming may also contribute to increasing the altitude at which malaria-carrying mosquitoes breed in already vulnerable African settings.

Just as health and environment must be seen together, none of these problems can be separated from the issue of poverty. Poverty is the greatest polluter, and as long as nearly 1.3 billion people live in absolute poverty, progress will remain slow.

Health is a yardstick of our success or failure in human development. While this century has seen enormous progress in the health field, poverty is eating away at many of these gains. For example, half a century ago, the majority of the world's population died before the age of 50. Today, life expectancy in developing countries is 64 years and is projected to reach 71 years by 2020. However, in some countries, Russia, for instance, or in parts of Africa, the diseases that prey on the poor have now sharply reduced life expectancy.

My message to the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 was that poverty degrades not only those who suffer it, but also those who tolerate it. We need to say this again. But more importantly, we need to act urgently.

I have always believed that you cannot make real changes in society unless the economic dimension of the issue is fully understood. In Europe we have had to learn that even the richest societies cannot afford to destroy their natural basis of human existence. But all over the world, we are seeing that improvements in health and environment are not something that can wait until wealth has been created. We have ample evidence that improved health and environment are necessary foundations for sustainable economic growth, and preconditions for reducing poverty.

Still, business and government in many countries continue to be caught up in a destructive cycle of short-term actions meant to provide quick returns but which disregard long-term costs.

A crucial element in turning this cycle is to provide scientific evidence as a basis for action. This is what took the environment from being a cause for the convinced few to becoming an issue for real societal attention by major players. The scientific facts came in. The true cost of environmental degradation were analysed and spelled out in figures. Then, gradually, governments and parliaments started to vote incentives to change behavioural patterns among industry and consumers.

This is where GRID-Arendal fits into the overall picture. It provides essential environmental data to a wide public. It is one of the many important sources for evidence that decision-makers and opinion-leaders can build on to provide sustainable, healthy policies.

It is appropriate that here in Norway the principal subject on the agenda today should be the health and environment of the Arctic Indigenous Peoples. WHO is vitally interested in the health of the indigenous peoples of the Arctic region. Indeed, earlier this year, WHO published a book entitled "The Health of Indigenous Peoples." The description of the health status of the more than 300 million indigenous people in the world today is an alarming one.

Life expectancy at birth is 10 to 20 years less for indigenous people than for the rest of the population. Infant mortality is 1.5 to 3 times greater than the national average. Malnutrition and communicable diseases, such as malaria, yellow fever, dengue, cholera and tuberculosis, continue to affect a large proportion of indigenous peoples around the world.

The health of indigenous people in the Arctic regions are also threatened by damage to their habitat and resource base. Environmental assessments show that certain Arctic populations are among the most exposed in the world to environmental contaminants. Some of these contaminants are carried to the Arctic and accumulate in animals used as traditional foods. Others arise within the Arctic itself.

I note with satisfaction that GRID-Arendal has played a prominent role in polar activities, and in providing data on the environmental conditions in which Arctic indigenous people live.

WHO and UNEP have chosen this anniversary as an occasion to look forward. This morning, Dr Töpfer and I signed a Memorandum of Understanding on Enhancement of Cooperation in the Field of Environmental Health.

Our two Organizations have worked together since 1972 on projects and programmes on a wide variety of environmental issues. In recent years, however, cooperation has decreased. Dr Töpfer and I are determined to turn things around radically.

We are confident that the agreement we sign today will be the starting point for a renewed period of close cooperation on critical environment and health issues, and for identifying areas with a promising potential for collaboration.

Currently WHO and UNEP have seven major joint projects and activities. These involve an international programme on chemical safety, water quality monitoring, the establishment of a sewage information clearing house, an ultraviolet radiation project, health guidelines for episodic vegetation fire events, a global environmental radiation monitoring network, and a joint experts' panel on environmental management for vector control.

We have now identified half a dozen new areas and activities. These include urban air pollution and its health effects in China, the creation of a database for evaluating the health risks of low doses of ionizing radiation, an action plan for phasing out DDT, a healthy cities air management information system, an inter-agency network on climate change and human health and, of course, GRID.

With regard to GRID, we are exploring the possibilities of improving access and use of environmental health data in conjunction with its environmental resource information.

Our common WHO-UNEP future agenda would do well to deal also with intensified cooperation on 'hot spots' of local or national importance. Examples are urban air pollution and the resulting respiratory diseases in Chinese cities; regional environmental problems, like forest fires; improved inter-agency coordination in the area of the urban environment; and renewed cooperation in global areas of common interest, such as freshwater, chemicals and climate.

When I inaugurated GRID-Arendal 10 year ago as Prime Minister of Norway, my first words were these:

"Knowledge about the state of the environment is a key element in the formation of sound environmental policies. Reliable information about changes in the global environment becomes increasingly important as a basis for action, both nationally and internationally."

I still stand firmly behind those words today, but now as Director-General of the World Health Organization, I would wish to insert the word health alongside the word environment. If I may paraphrase the familiar Latin dictum, mens sana in corpore sano - a sound mind in a healthy body - we seek a healthy people in a healthy environment. There is no having one without the other.

Thank you.

Monday 23 Aug 1999
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