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

As this edition of Our Planet goes to press, the world is still struggling with the aftermath of the Indian Ocean tsunami, which in a matter of hours turned the lives of millions of people upside down. Our first thoughts were with the victims and their families. Our second ones were on the rehabilitation of shattered livelihoods, economies and communities.

We are also now getting a glimpse into the environmental impacts. A recent preliminary report on one of the hardest-hit areas – Aceh Province, Indonesia – conservatively estimates damage and losses to important features like coral reefs, mangroves, seagrasses, coastal forests, river mouths and shallow wells at more than $660 million.

Restoring such habitats or advancing their recovery should be among the global community’s priorities once the humanitarian needs are met.

For coral reefs, coastal forests and these other key habitats are not just magnets for tourism, but vital nurseries for fish and sources of materials for local people. Globally, coral reefs generate environmental services worth many billions of dollars a year. They are also natural buffers against aggressive and destructive seas. Indeed, we ignore ‘Nature’s Wisdom’ at our peril, a theme that will be brought into focus at Expo 2005, opening in Aichi Prefecture, Japan, in March.

The key issue is to reduce the potential impact of future calamities, not only in the Indian Ocean, but everywhere. The tsunami was a purely natural event, but one detected by scientists. If an early-warning system had been in place, the loss of life would have been markedly reduced, especially in areas away from the earthquake’s epicentre. This is why the United Nations, governments and non-governmental organizations are fleshing out designs for such a system. At the World Conference on Disaster Reduction, which took place in Kobe, Japan, last month, funds were pledged for the telecommunications, buoys and other hardware needed.

The conference also recognized that such high-tech systems are not enough on their own. Education, training and public-awareness packages aimed at different sectors of society, from ministries down to villages, must form part of this project if it is to succeed. UNEP is tabling a specific decision on tsunamis and other weather-related disasters at our Governing Council/Global Ministerial Environment Forum in Nairobi, which I hope governments will back.

Environmental planning
But environmental security and reducing vulnerability go beyond a tsunami warning system for the Indian Ocean, even beyond one covering all possible regional and global calamities. Unless environmental provisions and planning are factored into reconstruction programmes, many communities will remain overly vulnerable to tidal waves, the impacts of climate change and other natural and man-made hazards.

Uncontrolled, unchecked and insensitive development of houses, businesses, hotels and aquaculture in coastal zones may be vulnerable to rising sea levels, storm surges and other phenomena. It may also contribute to the insecurity of coastal communities by weakening or damaging natural sea defences such as coral reefs and mangroves. These precious habitats and ecosystems are vulnerable to pollution run-off and clearance for, say, ports and harbours, shrimp and other forms of mariculture, and tourist resorts.

‘Silent tsunamis’
While the tsunami has rightly been the focus of world attention in the past few months, we must not allow the ‘silent tsunamis’ of poverty, hunger, dirty water and insufficient sanitation to slip off the page. So I applaud the decision of Tony Blair, the UK Prime Minister, to put Africa and climate change at the centre of his country’s twin presidencies of the G8 and the European Union this year.

In September, at a high level summit of the General Assembly, governments will discuss the status of the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals. A global plan, outlining how the goals can be met, has been drawn up by experts at the request of Kofi Annan. It argues that environmental sustainability is a critical foundation for ending poverty and that a considerable body of scientific data points to environmental degradation as a direct cause of many of the most pressing issues we face, including poverty, declining human health, hunger, undrinkable water, emerging diseases, rural-urban migration and civil strife.

I hope these findings will enrich and enliven discussion and lead to positive outcomes at our 23rd session of UNEP’s Governing Council


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This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Toepfer | Waking up | Planting security | Natural peace | People | No procrastinating on climate | Attracting private investment | Reshaping the energy and security debate | At a glance: Environmental security | Star profile: Salman Ahmad | How many Earths? | Green helmets | Books and products | Initiative for change | Security in turbulence | Water and war | Beating the ‘resource curse’ | Green peace | It’s poverty, stupid