World Summit 2002: Out of Africa

"Treat the earth well. It was not given to you by your parents. It is lent to you by your children." ---- Kenyan Proverb

It's fitting that the next major international conference on environmental issues will take place in Africa, a part of the world famous for its rich diversity of wildlife and ecosystems. From August 26 through September 4, 2002, the World Summit on Sustainable Development will be held in Johannesburg, South Africa. The summit will bring world leaders, citizen activists and business representatives together to work on an agenda for ensuring practical solutions to improve the lives of present and future generations, while protecting the global environment. 

The summit is expected to attract more than 100 presidents and prime ministers from all over the world. At press time, a member of the White House media relations office informed Environmental Protection that President George W. Bush has not yet determined whether he will go to the summit. Many U.S. environmentalists are urging President Bush to attend the conference in order to lead the international community in addressing threats to the environment.

It's noteworthy that 10 years ago when the United Nations (UN) Conference on Environment and Development (also known at the Earth Summit) was held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, then President George H. Bush attended. Additionally, a large number of other world leaders were present at the international conference. Important international agreements resulting from the 1992 conference included among others the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and the UN Convention on Biological Diversity

At this year's summit, which some are calling "Rio Plus 10," certain topics promise to dominate the proceedings. On May 14, 2002, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan stated that he sensed a need for greater clarity about what the Johannesburg Summit is all about and what it could achieve. From the large number of issues that will be considered in Johannesburg, Annan said the five areas he thinks should be targeted are "areas in which progress is possible with the resources and technologies currently at our disposal."

He proposed the following actions:

  • Water -- provide access to at least one billion people who lack clean water and two billion people who lack proper sanitation.
  • Energy -- provide access to more than two billion people who lack most energy services, promote renewable energy, reduce over-consumption and ratify the Kyoto Protocol to address climate change.
  • Health -- address the effects of hazardous materials; reduce pollution, which some experts estimate kills three million people each year, and lower the incidence of malaria and African guinea worm, which are linked with polluted water and poor sanitation.
  • Agricultural productivity -- work to reverse land degradation, which affects about two-thirds of the world's agricultural lands.
  • Biodiversity and ecosystem management -- reverse the processes that have destroyed about half of the world's tropical rainforests and mangroves, which are threatening about 70 percent of the world's coral reefs and are decimating many of the world's fisheries.

The urgency of dealing with these issues is underscored by a report that the UN Environmental Programme released in May 2002, which contains a compilation of research conducted by more than 1,000 scientists and a host of international research centers. According to the report, which focuses on projected environmental impacts on the planet during the next 30 years, most regions of the world will see their biological diversity and coastal ecosystems badly damaged by 2032. It also states an important cause of environmental degradation is the accelerating growth of vast, poor and largely unplanned cities in developing countries, most of them near coastlines. Increased sewage, storm water runoff and conversion of land around such cities will inevitably produce more human disease and kill more marine life.

Perhaps, even more alarming are the report's findings that water shortages will be particularly acute in a zone running from the Arabian Peninsula north through Syria and Iraq, with more than 90 percent of the population in that region living in what is called "severe water stress" by 2032.

On the positive side, the report, which can be found at www.unep.org, does find that the substantial reductions in air and water pollution in industrialized countries in the past 30 years can potentially be copied by developing nations. It also notes that protected preserves have increased steadily during the past 30 years from 1.07 million square miles in 1970 to 4.7 million square miles in 2000.

The hope is that at the end of this international summit participants will leave Africa with a new sense of commitment to work together in dealing with the current worldwide environmental challenges. We need partnerships among governments, private businesses, nonprofit organizations, scholars and concerned citizens that will function as creative agents of change to make sustainable development work.

This article originally appeared in the 07/01/2002 issue of Environmental Protection.

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