As world leaders arrive at the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg starting on August 26, reports on the state of the global environment are giving both good and bad news.
On the whole, the news is that the world has a tremendous way to go in curtailing the damage that human activities are having on the natural ecosystem.
A report from the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) released a joint report with the Asian Development Bank in mid-August that found contaminated water is still the single biggest killer of children in the region. Worldwide, the authors found, while mortality rates have gone down, more children have died from the effects of severe diarrhea, a product of polluted water and poor sanitation, than all the people killed through armed conflicts since World War II.
The report blamed population growth, urbanization and economic development for putting great pressure on freshwater supplies. It also suggested that legislation over water supplies was inadequate and resource planning and management were ineffective.
Another report issued about the same time was “Global Challenge, Global Opportunity” by the United Nations Department for Economic and Social Affairs.
Among its findings were:
40% of the world’s population faces water shortages
Global sea levels are rising, clearly indicating the impact of global warming
Many plant and animal species are at risk, including half of the large primates
2.4% of the world’s forests were destroyed in the 1990s (7% of Africa’s forests were destroyed)
Every year more than three million people die from the effects of air pollution.
The report noted that human appetites for water and food especially are putting pressure on the world’s natural resources. The water scarcity is not only because the population is growing, but also because food consumption per person has increased: from 2,100 to 2,700 calories in developing countries, and from 3,000 to 3,400 calories in industrial nations.
The demand for water has increased six-fold in the last century, at twice the rate of population growth. Moreover, agriculture is responsible for 70% of this consumption. “The expansion of agricultural lands is the cause of almost all global deforestation,” said the report, “and the single greatest threat to biodiversity and ecosystems.”
However, all is not doom and gloom. The same report noted that progress has been reached in reducing poverty in Asia and Latin America. Also in Europe and North America forests are being certified for sustainable logging and nature reserves are expanding — now amounting to 5% of the total land mass in Europe and 11% in North America.
Renewable energy sources have increased their share of the global energy supply from 3.2% in 1971 to 4.5% now. And while air pollution is still a major problem, it has been brought under control in middle and high-income countries, with significant reductions in pollution recorded from the 1970s to 1990s in Tokyo, Mexico City, Singapore and Seoul. Also access to safe drinking water has improved gradually, and the goal of a 50% reduction in diarrhea diseases that was adopted at the World Summit for Children in 1999 has been reached, but the annual fatality rate was still at an unconscionable 1.7 million in 1999.
Nitin Desal, secretary-general of the World Summit, said: “Sustainable development is starting to take root in some parts of the world, but it needs to be accelerated rapidly if we are to build a future free of the poverty and instability that will come if we continue our present management of natural resources. World leaders must come to Johannesburg ready to embrace a new approach to global development, and — most importantly — to support this goal with concrete commitments.”