The environment:
why we must not give up

Kim Hak-Su
explains why none of us can give up on the environment or on solutions to prevent its degradation

A BBC Reporter interviewing me at the launch of the State of Environment in Asia and the Pacific 2000 report, released at the turn of the century, began her interview with a startling question: ‘So, do we give up?’ The reason for her question was the fact that the report, published by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), reveals that the environmental challenges that were identified in the 1990s not only continue to haunt the region but have been intensified by the emergence of new challenges linked to persistent poverty and rapid globalization.

A large part of the private capital that fuelled economic growth in the last two decades fled the region in 1997. The ensuing financial crisis caused economic and social turmoil. It set back the spectacular strides made in fighting poverty, and the environment suffered even more than it usually has in ‘good times’. In most countries budgetary allocations for the environment were reduced, leading to fewer investments in conservation and protection activities and delays in investments in capital renewal and cleaner technologies.

Heavy natural resource usage, another factor promoting rapid growth, had a much more serious impact on the environment. For each unit output of gross domestic product (GDP) in the region, energy, water, minerals and other resources have been used at an increasing scale, resulting in their depletion. As material inputs intensified, the pollution load in terms of direct discharges into the environment inevitably increased. Their combined effect is apparent in shrinking forests, widespread land degradation, fragmentation of habitat, drying up of aquifers, and growing pollution and waste loads. The region is paying heavily for the combined effect of the ‘grow now and clean up later’ policies that prevailed in the recent past.

Poverty has forced people, especially the landless among the rural community, to move to ecologically vulnerable areas and exploit fragile resources to meet the basic needs for their survival. Forests and biodiversity are disappearing, and land degradation and desertification are on the increase. Annual losses as a result of land degradation and desertification have been estimated at $10 billion in South Asia and $700 million in North-East Asia. In Central Asian countries the losses amount to 3 per cent of GDP. Almost 500 million Asians have been affected by desertification, directly or indirectly.

About half of the region’s forest base and two-thirds of the Asian wildlife habitats have disappeared, placing the rich biodiversity of the region under serious threat. Massive withdrawals from rivers, lakes and underground reservoirs have contributed to the growing water scarcity. For example, the Aral Sea, which used to be the fourth biggest island water body in the world, has shrunk to 40 per cent of its original size since 1960.

With the disappearance and disturbance of the ecosystems that provide basic sustenance the rural population, mainly the poor, are migrating in large numbers to cities. Consequently, the urban population of the Asian and Pacific region which stood at 1.4 billion in 2000 has doubled in the last 20 years. It is projected to increase by 800 million in the next 20 years. This amounts to the establishment of a new city of 150,000 people every day for the next one and a half decades. The magnitude of the challenge is indeed daunting.

The high rate of urbanization, particularly the unprecedented growth of large and mega cities, has resulted in the proliferation of slums and squatter settlements. Some 15-50 per cent of the population in Asian cities live in such settlements. The scale has outstripped the management capacities of local authorities in providing environmental services and utilities such as safe drinking water, sanitation, energy, and waste collection and disposal.

Water quality has deteriorated steadily because of a combination of factors such as uncontrolled discharge of sewage and industrial effluents, chemicals added by agricultural run-off and human excreta.

The consequent impacts of pollution on human health are extremely serious. Diarrhoea and acute respiratory infections caused by contaminated water and air respectively are the biggest killers of children today.

The urban poor are the worst affected, as they tend to live and work in the most polluted places. Many of their settlements lack safe water supplies, sewerage and drainage, and waste disposal facilities.

The situation demands full commitment, action and implementation – no more rhetoric. In this context ESCAP, with its partners such UNEP and the Asian Development Bank, has already undertaken some significant initiatives towards evolving a regional consensus. It convened a Ministerial Conference on Environment and Development in September 2000 at Kitakyushu, Japan, which adopted the Regional Action Programme on Environmentally Sound and Sustainable Development in Asia and the Pacific, 2001-2005. The Regional Action Programme translates the shared commitments of the conference into a focused and concrete framework for action in eight priority areas, the implementation of which will lead to redoubling of efforts at sustainable development in the region. The Kitakyushu Initiative for a Clean Environment adopted by the ministers is intended to improve the urban environment primarily through local initiatives.

We are fully aware that translating commitments to deeds and actions will certainly entail costs. It has been estimated that provision of environmental infrastructure and utilities such as water supply, sanitation, energy and transport in urban areas alone will cost around $10 trillion over the next 25-30 years under the ‘business as usual scenario’. In the absence of this kind of resource package in the public sector, none of us can give up on the environment or on solutions to prevent its degradation. That was my reply to the reporter



Kim Hak-Su is United Nations Under-Secretary General and Executive Secretary of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP). ESCAP is based in Bangkok and has 61 member countries.

PHOTOGRAPH: UN

This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Toepfer | Answering poor health | Tackling water poverty | Everything connects | Up the gross natural product | Stopping AIDS | Whose city is it anyway? | Nutrition | At a glance: Poverty | Competition | World Bank Special: ‘Double burden’ | It’s not just, pollution | Smoke and fires | Breaking the cycle of poison | Pharmacies for life | Viewpoint: Change – or decay | The environment: why we must not give up | World Atlas of Coral Reefs | GTOS: An eyeglass on our planet