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Terrorism, Iraq Sap Energy From Sustainable Development

NEW YORK, New York, April 28, 2004 (ENS) - The attention of high level politicians has been diverted from sustainable development by "the recent emphasis given to terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, and the war in Iraq," United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan warned today.

Opening the high-level portion of the Commission on Sustainable Development meeting at UN Headquarters, Annan called for balance with attention to environmental protection, social progress and economic growth, especially as they concern water, sanitation and settlements, the meeting's themes.

It was the first time the secretary-general has addressed the commission, which was formed in 1992 in the wake of the UN Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.

Annan

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan addresses ministers at the UN Commission on Sustainable Development (Photo courtesy United Nations)
"The natural resource base is under siege," Annan told the audience, which included 80 ministers. "Unsustainable patterns of consumption and production are still the norm. Progress in slowing deforestation and biodiversity loss has been glacial."

"The AIDS epidemic is an enormous and still growing burden," he said to delegates from around the world who have been meeting since April 19 in an attempt to provide clean water, adequate sanitation and liveable settlements for the millions of people who still lack these basic services.

Issues of water use and access to sanitation show the linkages that make the work of the international community complex but filled with potential, Annan said.

"Water is intimately linked with education and gender equality. Girls who have to spend time gathering water for the family tend not to be in school," he said. "And where schools have sanitation, attendance is higher, especially among girls."

The secretary-general said preoccupation with terrorism and the problems in Iraq is "understandable" but clean water and sanitation issues are also urgent matters of life and death.

Millions of children get ill and die every year from water-borne diseases and for lack of basic sanitation and hygiene. Poor water management degrades and squanders a precious resource, thereby impoverishing rural areas and driving people to cities, more often than not to the slums, Annan said.

"We cannot lose any more time, or ground, in the wider struggle for human well-being. Just as we need balanced development, so do we need a balanced international agenda," he said.

Warning that water issues can generate tensions and conflict, the secretary-general emphasized that water use can also offer opportunities for cooperation within and across borders.

Meanwhile, the Commission on Sustainable Development must act as a watchdog on development issues, "alert to threats and fearless in sounding alarms," Annan said.

Brende

Chair Børge Brende of Norway (Photo courtesy Earth Negotiations Bulletin)
In his summary of the first part of the official meeting, Chair Børge Brende, the Norwegian environment minister, gave a review of the progress of discussions, the difficulties and obstacles encountered, the lessons learned, and the continuing challenges for each of the three themes - water, sanitation and settlements.

Brende said there will be no negotiation of the summary document as it is a record of the session that will become an additional input to the ministerial discussions during the high-level segment that opened today.

The early discussions showed that many countries are not on track to meet their water, sanitation and human settlement goals, Brende said, and that poverty continues to be a critical issue. The overall targets on water, sanitation and human settlements were set for those sectors at the Millennium Summit in 2000 and at the Johannesburg World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002.

Brende mentioned the lack of financing, declining overseas development assistance, and the need for capacity building and technology transfer as critical challenges.

On Tuesday, during its final interactive dialogue on “cross-cutting” issues affecting the achievement of targets on water, sanitation and human settlements, Margaret Catley-Carlson, chair of the Global Water Partnership, gave three principle reasons why access to water is so critical to poverty eradication.

One is "the law of how things work," she said, since the poor always suffer most when public services, sewage and water treatment systems fail.

Another reason is the "livelihoods issue," Catley-Carlson said. There is a need to increase the efficiency of rural water harvesting and treatment systems, to boost water sources for agricultural use and hygiene purposes, in order to benefit the poor.

The cost of poor health is the final reason, she said, explaining that India spends an estimated $60 billion annually treating water-borne illnesses.

In Africa, women and girls spend 40 billion hours of each year seeking water. If mothers cannot get water, then girls are pulled out of school to do the job, perpetuating poverty, as well as poor health, she said.

Sanitation and hygiene are fundamental for health and poverty reduction and, above all, human dignity, said Sir Richard Jolly, professor in the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex, United Kingdom.

He reminded the Commission that international targets for safe water had been set in 2000 at the Millennium Summit, "but it took two years, and the Johannesburg World Summit ... before everyone said, ‘Oops, we better do something about sanitation as well.'"

Pietro Garau, co-chair of the Millennium Development Goal Task Force on Slum Dwellers, said that the world’s urban population - estimated at three billion in 2003 - was expected to rise to five billion by 2030. He said urban areas in less developed regions are predicted to absorb almost all the world’s population growth between now and 2030.

Faced with those facts, he stressed the need to get cities and local authorities more involved in the implementation of the Johannesburg and Millennium goals.

Efforts are being made by several cities and countries to grant secure tenure to slum dwellers, which is directly related to better health and environments, and to an improved capacity to enter the formal employment sector, Garau said.

Nothing is so urgent as improving slum dwellers’ lives, and recognizing that the process turns many of them from invisible people into citizens.

Now that the high-level segment has opened, the ministers will get down to work outlining political priorities to prepare for the policy year ahead. Next year will allow for the Commission to work on the same three themes in the first of a series of two-year cycles of commitment to a set of related issues.

Their task is grave. As Secretary-General Annan told them this morning, "We look to you for coherent, effective policy. And you must continue to give voice to all stakeholders, not just governments. We must all listen to what science is telling us about our planet, and to what ordinary people – the billions without water or sanitation, or living in slums – are telling us about their lives."

"We need to overcome the entrenched interests and economic short-sightedness that hinder progress," Annan said. "And we need to act urgently on what has already been agreed. Let us, together, build the critical mass of actors and attitudes that is necessary to change course."



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