Klaus Toepfer
United Nations Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director, UNEP

The great philosopher who developed the Principle of Responsibility, Hans Jonas, once remarked: ‘Today, mankind is a bigger threat to the sea than the sea has ever been to mankind.’

This edition of Our Planet marks the annual World Environment Day celebrations. The theme ‘Seas and Oceans! Wanted Dead or Alive?’ reflects Jonas’ observations, his concerns. From overfishing and the discharge of untreated, raw, sewage to the clearing and destruction of precious habitats like coral reefs and mangrove swamps, the world’s marine environment is under assault as never before.

UNEP, and the rest of the United Nations system, is not standing idly by, merely a witness and chronicler of the damage. The United Nations Millennium Development Goals and the World Summit on Sustainable Development’s (WSSD) Plan of Implementation give us clear targets and timetables for addressing a wide range of pressing issues including those relating to oceans and seas.

Under the plan, we all have the responsibility to restore fish stocks to healthy levels by 2015, where possible. Significantly, it also urges establishing a global network of marine protected areas. Already we are seeing action on this – from proposals dramatically to extend Australia’s protection for its Great Barrier Reef to moves by six West African countries – Cape Verde, Gambia, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Mauritania and Senegal – to develop a network of marine protected areas aimed at reducing overfishing and possible threats from oil exploration.

Key target
One key target and timetable set at WSSD was to halve the number of people without access to basic sanitation by 2015. Not only will this reduce sickness and misery, it will also reduce the levels of toxic, algal blooms in the oceans which threaten human health and wildlife – and spread low-oxygen areas, so called ‘dead zones’.

Reducing sewage pollution will also cut discharges which can choke precious marine habitats, like coral reefs. These are fish nurseries and significant generators of tourist dollars for often poor coastal communities.

Delivering the WSSD sanitation target should lead to further spin-offs for the marine world. In some situations, modern wastewater treatment works may be appropriate. But natural systems – some of which, like mangrove swamps, are coastal and marine – can provide low-cost alternatives. Many are being cleared for agriculture and other uses. By focusing attention on their sewage and pollution filtering properties, valuable habitats for spawning fish and birds can be saved.

The seas are special but there are some areas that are especially vulnerable to interference by humankind.

Pervasive threat
In small island developing states, water supplies, agriculture, terrestrial and marine wildlife and unique cultures are threatened not only by overfishing, pollution and insensitive development. They are also threatened by probably the greatest and most pervasive threat of all, namely climate change.

Solutions to their plight will be the focus of the Barbados+10 meeting to be held in Mauritius later in 2004.

These activities are not carried out in isolation.

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and its implementing agreements are now in force alongside numerous regional fisheries agreements.

We now have 13 regions covered by the UNEP Regional Seas Programme, the latest of which covers the North East Pacific. There are also three, non-UNEP, regional seas agreements including the Oslo Paris Commission (OSPAR) Convention.

UNEP, with funding from the Global Environment Facility, is also leading the four-year Global International Waters Assessment or GIWA. This is a sort of marine and freshwater equivalent of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Sixty-six international waters are being assessed with the aim of giving the international community crucial information on where current problems are.

Significantly GIWA will also develop scenarios of the future conditions of these waters as a result of social, economic and environmental pressures, allowing the international community to prioritize efforts.

I am delighted to say that GIWA is well under way. Work on several significant regions, including the Amazon Basin, the Indian Ocean Islands and the Caspian Sea, has been successfully completed.

UNEP’s Global Programme of Action for the Protection of the Marine Environment from Land-based Activities (GPA) was also given big backing by WSSD.

By 2006, up to 40 mainly developing countries are expected to have national programmes of action in place to reduce the levels of pollution entering the sea from the land and from rivers


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This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Töpfer | Into the mainstream | Creation’s forgotten days | Restoring a pearl | Stop my nation vanishing | Energy release | Oceans need mountains | People | An ocean corridor | At a glance: Seas, oceans and small islands | Profile: Cesaria Evora | No island is an island | Small islands, big potential | Small is vulnerable | Natural resilience | Books and products | Keeping oil from troubled waters | Redressing the balance | Neighbours without borders | Will Mother Nature wait? | Pacific canaries

Complementary issues:
Issue on Oceans, 1998
Issue on Small Islands, 1999
Issue on Biological Diversity, 2000
Issue on World Summit on Sustainable Development, 2002
Issue on World Heritage and Protected Areas, 2003

AAAS Atlas of Population and Environment: