At a glance:
Millennium issues

Humanity’s use of freshwater soared sixfold over the last century, and continues to rise. Demand is expected to increase by over a third over the next 25 years – and to almost double for drinking water. And yet it is getting scarcer. Already one-third of the world’s people live in countries where water is in short supply; by 2025 two-thirds of them will do so. About one in every five people on Earth now lacks safe drinking water.

Acquifers of underground water, built up over millennia, are being exploited faster than they can be replenished; every year 160 billion tonnes of water are being ‘mined’ in this way in China, India, North Africa, Saudi Arabia and the United States alone. The water table under the north China plain, which produces 40 per cent of the country’s grain harvest, is falling by 1.6 metres a year, while the International Water Management Institute estimates that the depletion of Indian acquifers could cut the country’s grain harvest by a quarter. Meanwhile international tensions over shared rivers are rising, threatening water wars.

Species are being driven to extinction at least 1,000 times – and maybe 10,000 times – faster than they would die out naturally. No-one knows how much damage is being done, partly because no-one even knows how many species there are on Earth; estimates range from 5 million to over 100 million. But the damage is clearly accelerating. By one estimate up to two-thirds of all the species on the planet may be lost over the next 100 years. The world appears to be in the early stages of a mass extinction, to rival those of prehistoric times, the latest of which wiped out the dinosaurs. Great holes will be torn in the web of life, and countless species that could have brought great benefits to medicine and food supplies will be lost. On past evidence it will take 10 million years – far longer than the expected lifespan of the human species – for the planet’s life to recover its diversity.

Four-fifths of the forests that originally cloaked the Earth have been cleared, fragmented or otherwise degraded. About 40 per cent of what is left is under threat. Some 16 million hectares of forest, an area about twice the size of Austria, are felled every year. As the trees disappear, the rainwater rushes off the land, stripping away topsoil and causing floods; it fails to percolate into the ground, causing water sources to dry up. Species become extinct, and global warming increases.

It can take anything up to 1,000 years for a couple of centimetres of topsoil to form. But increasingly this much is being washed or blown away in a few seasons. Every year the world loses some 25 billion tonnes of it. Some 2 billion hectares of arable and grazing land worldwide – an area larger than the United States and Mexico combined – have been moderately or severely degraded, reducing its ability to produce food. Desertification costs the world $42 billion a year in lost income and soil erosion puts the livelihoods of nearly a billion people at risk. By one estimate, crop yields in Africa could be cut in half within 40 years if degradation continues at its present rate.

The climate is getting warmer. Eight of the hottest ten years on record occurred in the last decade. Glaciers are smaller than at any time in at least 5,000 years, and the Arctic Ocean has lost 40 per cent of its ice cover in the last 30 years. Meanwhile, economic damage from disasters caused by extreme weather in 1998 alone exceeded the total for the whole of the 1980s.

The WMO/UNEP Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has concluded that, on balance, human activities are contributing to global warming, as greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide (C02) are emitted and forests are felled. C02 is now at record levels in the atmosphere. The IPCC’s best prediction is that global temperatures will rise by 2oC over this century – the greatest warming in 10,000 years – while sea levels will rise by 50 centimetres, enough to flood millions of people in low-lying deltas and coastal areas and to submerge some island nations beneath the waves. Such is the inertia in the world’s system that once global warming has begun, it will be very hard to stop on any reasonable time scale.

Many countries have tackled the grossest forms of pollution over the last half century. Rivers have been cleaned up and skies cleared, particularly in developed countries. But 5 million of the world’s poorest people die each year from diarrhoeal diseases, largely because they lack safe water, and another 2.2 million die of respiratory conditions through burning smokey fuels in their homes. Meanwhile newer forms of pollution, such as persistent organic pollutants (which concentrate up the food chain and can have severe health effects) and endocrine disrupters (which interfere with the hormone system) are causing increasing concern.


UNEP is the advocate for environmental concerns within the international system. It raises awareness of environmental issues and catalyses action to tackle them, builds partnerships with other United Nations bodies and works with civil society – the private sector, the scientific community, non-governmental organizations, youth, women and sports organizations – to achieve sustainable development. Its mission is: ‘to provide leadership and encourage partnerships in caring for the environment by inspiring, informing and enabling nations and people to improve their quality of life without compromising that of future generations.’

Its main areas of concentration include: environmental monitoring, assessment, information and research, including early warning of threats; the enhanced coordination of environmental conventions and the development of environment policy instruments; freshwater; technology transfer and industry; and support to Africa.

Little over a quarter of a century old, UNEP can claim to have already played an important role in tackling and reversing environmental destruction. For example:

  • It was the driving force behind the Montreal Protocol, which has caused a drop of over 75 per cent in the use of chemicals that deplete the Earth’s vital ozone layer, and is on the way to phasing them out altogether. As a result an estimated 1.5 million cases of melanoma skin cancer will be averted over the next 60 years.

  • It is the leading force in reducing and eliminating the risks posed by hazardous wastes worldwide, and ensuring that they are properly managed. With the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), it negotiated the Basel Convention to regulate trade in them, and it is currently managing negotiations on a new treaty on persistent organic pollutants. Cooperation between FAO and UNEP has also brought about the Rotterdam Convention, covering the growing trade in hazardous pesticides and chemicals.

  • It forged the Convention on Biological Diversity – whose Parties have just agreed a Protocol on Biosafety – and manages the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, which helps protect over 35,000 of the world’s endangered species, and has helped bring the elephant back from the brink of extinction.

  • It has pioneered the drive towards cleaner production, to improve efficiency and prevent environmental damage by industry, and last year launched the Declaration on Cleaner Production.

  • Together with the World Meteorological Organization, it has played a central role in the world’s efforts to combat climate change, including the Kyoto Protocol agreed in 1998.

PHOTOGRAPHS: A. Alhamby/UNEP/Topham, Yutaka Morioka/UNEP/Topham, Lee Yu Huei/UNEP/Topham, Thiha Thein Nyan/UNEP/Topham, Wasserbach/UNEP/Topham, Zhao Weiming/UNEP/Topham

Contents | Editorial K. Toepfer | Time to act | A climate of change | Melding heart and head | Looking through green glasses | Multi-local business | World Environment Day 2000 |
At a glance | Competition | The greening of Goliath | Unfair trade | No sleeping after Seattle | Disproportionate effects | Liberal rations | New millennium, new regulation | Secretary-General’s Report | Pachamama: Our Earth, Our Future