Canadian Consulting Engineer

Nature knows no national borders

October 1, 2005
By Bronwen Parsons

At a time when the world is holding the United Nations up to scrutiny, Nature seems to be batting hard on the international body's behalf....

At a time when the world is holding the United Nations up to scrutiny, Nature seems to be batting hard on the international body’s behalf.

In September the UN held its World Summit in New York. Attended by more than 150 world leaders, the conference was originally called to reaffirm the Millennium Development Goals to eradicate poverty. However, in the face of growing criticisms, the UN widened the agenda to consider ways of reforming the international body itself.

The country grumbling most loudly about the UN is the United States. It is going to withhold half its dues unless the international organization reforms itself to the States’ satisfaction by 2008. The U.S. provides approximately 20 per cent of the UN’s budget. But criticisms are coming from all quarters. A month after the summit, The Daily Star of Lebanon published an article calling for UN reform. In it, the country’s Information Minister expressed his disillusionment: “What is the value of [UN] rules, laws, articles, charters and institutions,” he asked, “if they are barred by the pressure of this or that superpower?” In Canada, Stephen Lewis, the UN’s own envoy for Africa and AIDS/HIV has complained that the body is “paralyzed,” and guilty of ignoring women.

But just as these cries of complaint and dissension were reaching a raucous crescendo, floods and disasters descended upon the earth. Louisiana was engulfed, an earthquake in Pakistan and Kashmir killed 50,000, mudslides left thousands of orphans in Central America — all in the wake of the tsunami last year that took 275,000 lives.

When environmental devastation occurs on such a scale, much of the world can only turn to the world organization for help and reassurance. Since nature cares nothing for national boundaries, we need the UN to coordinate relief efforts and provide the infrastructure for relieving human misery. As well, increasing population, denser development patterns and environmental pressures, global trade and a global media machine are all feeding into a system that makes the UN more and more relevant. It has never been more important to have an impartial overseer looking out for the common good of the planet.

This issue of Canadian Consulting Engineer is devoted to our annual awards and several winning projects are international work. In three of them the Canadian engineers were involved in mediating the needs and desires of different countries in the interests of the environment. One project in particular shows the important work that the UN is doing: SNC-Lavalin’s Toronto office teamed with authorities in Russia, the Ukraine and Belarus and managed to find common ground on ways of identifying the most problematic pollution sources feeding into the Dnieper River. Under the auspices of this United Nations Industrial Development initiative, the officials of all three countries stepped beyond their own bureaucratic fiefdoms in a shared drive to clean up the Black Sea Basin.

The UN no doubt does need reform, but it also needs more support, not less, if it is to succeed in helping countries compromise and overcome their self-interest. We should think of the UN the same way Winston Churchill viewed democracy: “it is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.”


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