Summit must be red ribbon day for the environment

The 2005 World Summit aims to deliver a new and strengthened United Nations in areas ranging from security to human rights.
By Klaus Toepfer, Executive Director of UNEP.

It will also take stock of progress towards the 2015 Millennium Development Goals. These include eradicating poverty, supplying safe and sufficient supplies of drinking water, empowering women, and reversing the spread of infectious disease.

Many important advances are being made in these fields, but it is also clear that these internationally agreed targets are unlikely to be met without a new sense of urgency and greater imagination as to the solutions.

Over recent months the environment has emerged as a crucial pillar, if not a cornerstone, upon which the goals may well stand or fall.

“A more secure world: Our shared responsibility”, the report of the Secretary- General’s High Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change, reads: “Environmental degradation has enhanced the destructive potential of natural disasters and in some cases hastened their occurrence. More than two billion people were affected in the last decade.”

One of the interim reports of the UN Millennium Project, requested by the Secretary-General to inform the September review, states: “A considerable body of scientific data points to environmental degradation – the erosion of genetic diversity, the loss of species, the degradation of ecosystems, and the decline of ecosystem services – as a direct cause of many of the most pressing issues we face today including poverty, declining human health, hunger, undrinkable water, emerging diseases, rural-urban migration and civil strife.”

So the environment is not a luxury, not a Gucci accessory bag or a fancy silk tie affordable only when all other issues have been resolved.

It is the oxygen breathing life into all the goals. It is the red ribbon running around our common aspirations for a healthier, more stable and just world.

It is also critical to the economies of countries and regions, a fact that governments have yet to fully take on board but which they ignore at their economic peril.

When New York city council was faced with supplying safer drinking water for its nine million customers, it also faced an up to $6 billion water filtration bill.

Instead of paying for machinery, the city plumped for better management of river banks, forests, agriculture and other ecosystems to reduce pollution into the Catskill-Delaware river system.

By working with nature, the city spent only $1bn to provide safe drinking water to New York and thus saved between $3bn and $5bn.

The recently published Millennium Ecosystem Assessment and its spin off reports also highlight similar hard economic arguments.

The work of 1,300 scientists and experts from 95 countries, it has begun to put numbers on the value on individual ecosystems and the services they provide.

It says that an intact wetland in Canada is worth $6,000 a hectare compared with $2,000 a hectare for one cleared for intensive agriculture.

Intact tropical mangroves, coastal ecosystems that are nurseries for fish, natural pollution filters and coastal defences, are worth around $1,000 a hectare. Cleared for shrimp farms, the value falls to around $200 a hectare.

The assessment also puts a value on peat bogs and marshlands. It estimates that the Muthurajawela Marsh, a coastal bog covering more than 3,000 hectare in Sri Lanka, is worth an estimated $5m a year as a result of services such as local flood control.

Losses as a result of damage by alien invasive species in the Cape Floral region of South Africa is calculated at around $2,000 a hectare.

The annual recreational value of coral reefs in the six Marine Management Areas of the Hawaiian islands ranges from $300,000 to tens of millions of dollars a year.

Studies from Algeria, Italy, Portugal, Syria and Tunisia also point to the value of intact forests.

They estimate that the value of the timber and fuel-wood from a forest is worth less than a third when compared with the value of services ranging from watershed protection and recreation to the absorption of pollutants such as greenhouse gases.

The burning of 10m hectares of Indonesia’s forests in the late 1990s cost an estimated $9bn due to factors including increased health care and tourism losses.

There are also new findings on the link between the spread of disease and environmental destruction. The provision of treated bed nets, the better availability of low cost anti-malarial drugs and the development of vaccines are crucial but so are healthy ecosystems.

Studies in the Amazon by researchers at Johns Hopkins University in the United States have concluded that for every 1% increase in deforestation, there is an eight per cent increase in the number of malaria-carrying mosquitoes (see also map on page 12).

This has implications for human health but also to economic development. It is calculated that Africa’s gross national product (GNP) in 2000 could have been 25% or $100bn higher if malaria had been eradicated 35 years ago.

So we sincerely hope that when Heads of State meet in New York that they put “natural or nature’s capital” right up there with human and financial capital.

And that they also recognise that significant, targeted investments in the environment including the restoration and rehabilitation of damaged and degraded wetlands, forests, mangroves, coral and the like provides a high rate of return and will go a long way towards meeting the eight goals.

Anything less will undermine our attempts to defeat poverty and deliver sustainable development and will shortchange current and future generations.

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