Ministers From 100 Countries Tackle Environmental Threats

NAIROBI, Kenya, February 23, 2005 - Environmental changes are responsible for an upsurge of new and previously suppressed infectious diseases, finds a report presented to some 100 environment ministers gathered in Nairobi for the annual United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Governing Council meeting.

Loss of forests, road and dam building, the spread of cities, the clearing of natural habitats for agriculture, mining and the pollution of coastal waters are promoting conditions under which well known pathogens such as malaria, meningitis, and dengue fever can thrive.

In addition, diseases that have in the past infected animals are now crossing over to humans. For instance, scientists report that the highly pathogenic Nipah virus, which until recently was found only in Asian fruit bats, first moved to swine, and has now spread to humans.

A combination of forest fires in Sumatra and the clearance of natural forests in Malaysia for palm plantations drove hungry fruit bats into closer contact to domestic pigs, giving the virus a chance to spread to humans as people handled the infected swine.

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Fire in Sumatra, Indonesia 1997 (Photo courtesy GFMC)
Climate change may aggravate the threats of infectious diseases in three ways, the experts write - by increasing the temperatures under which many diseases and their carriers flourish, by further stressing and altering habitats, and by increasing the number of environmental refugees who are carrying their infections to new locations.

These are among the findings from UNEP in its latest "Global Environment Outlook Year Book 2004/2005."

The "GEO Year Book" also links yellow fever, Kyasanur Forest disease and Ebola with deforestation and its effects.

Land use change, in the form of agriculture, is linked with the rise and spread of diseases like Western and Venezuelan equine encephalitis and typhus.

Tuberculosis, bubonic plague and hantavirus pulmonary syndrome are linked with unplanned urbanization.

Chemicals and antibiotics in farm animal wastes are helping to make disease-causing bacteria more resistant to drugs with implications for infections such as hepatitis and some diarrheal diseases.

Meanwhile, air pollution from transport and factories is linked with increased incidence of respiratory infections. Pollution of coastal waters from raw untreated sewage is a key factor in cholera outbreaks worldwide.

Other issues in the "GEO Year Book" include the impact of climate change on ocean circulation; the changing face of the Earth as seen from space, including the spread of greenhouses in Spain; state of the environment reports from the regions; and a look back at significant environmental developments in 2004.

UNEP also used the occasion of its annual Governing Council to offer a report on the environmental effects of last December's Asian earthquake and tsunami which claimed close to 300,000 lives and left millions homeless across 11 countries around the Indian Ocean.

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UNEP Executive Director Klaus Toepfer and Governing Council President Rachmad Witoelar, who is Insdonesia's environment minister, introduce the tsunami assessment. (Photo courtesy Earth Negotiations Bulletin)
UNEP's "After the Tsunami- Rapid Environmental Assessment" covers Indonesia, the Maldives, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Thailand, the Seychelles and Yemen, and includes recommendations and findings on - wastes, water supplies, sanitation and soil fertility, coral reefs, mangroves and wildlife, and beach erosion and coastal vegetation.

The report was coordinated by UNEP's Task Force and prepared in collaboration with UNEP's Regional Offices in Asia Pacific and Africa, other UN bodies, governments and nongovernmental organizations.

Klaus Toepfer, UNEP’s executive director, said, “The report underlines the importance of managing the reconstruction in an environmentally sensitive way. Buildings and other infrastructure need to be built in less vulnerable areas and to standards that will protect them and their inhabitants in the event of future tsunamis. This makes sense not only in respect to tsunamis but also with respect to storms surges, floods, hurricanes and other extreme weather events.”

Vulnerability mapping is urgently needed to pinpoint coastal sites where homes, hotels, factories and other infrastructure should be banned or restricted., the assessment recommends.

The environment was a victim of the tsunami but also played its part in reducing the impact. "Where healthy and relatively intact features like coral reefs, mangroves and coastal vegetation were in place there is evidence that the damage was reduced," said Toepfer. "There are innumerable reasons to maintain healthy habitats like coral reefs. They are nurseries fish and magnets for tourists. Now we have another reason to conserve them."

The Governing Council is placing emphasis on the UN's Millenium Development Goals during this week's meeting. In September, nations will gather in New York for a meeting of the UN General Assembly to evaluate progress towards achieving the eight Millennium Development Goals. http://www.un.org/millenniumgoals/

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Masoumeh Ebtekar, vice-president of Iran and head of the Department of Environment, told fellow environment ministers that women in decisionmaking roles are needed both at high and grassroots levels, and women are crucial in the mainstreaming of environmental issues in rural areas. (Photo courtesy Earth Negotiations Bulletin)
By the year 2015, all 191 United Nations members have agreed to meet the goals to reduce hunger and thirst, improve childrens' health and eduction, promote gender equality, improve maternal health, combat AIDS, malaria and other diseases, reverse the loss of environmental resources, and develop global economic opportunities.

A task force appointed by Secretary General Kofi Annan has concluded that the environment is the cornerstone upon which the Millennium Development Goals are likely to stand or fall.

As talks progress at the Governing Council meeting in Nairobi, delegates are showing support for controlling emissions of toxic mercury with a legally binding instrument.

John Buccini of UNEP presented information on chemicals management to the meeting and outlined the chemicals-related draft decisions prepared for consideration of the delegates.

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A contact group chaired by Viveka Bohn of Sweden (left), began discussions on the omnibus decision on chemicals management. Delegates agreed to focus on mercury. (Photo courtesy Earth Negotiations Bulletin)
Buccini said a single decision on chemicals management, instead of various decisions on different items, is being considered. On mercury, he said the current proposed decision reflects alternative paths to move forward, and he predicted substantial discussions on this item in the chemicals contact group.

At its 2002 meeting the UNEP Governing Council adopted a Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management. The strategic approach is to promote the incorporation of chemical safety issues into the development agenda. The initiative was endorsed by the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in September 2002.

The 2003 UNEP Governing Council decided to hold an international chemicals conference around the end of 2005, and two preparatory meetings to set up that conference were held last year.

Meanwhile, a proposal to ban thin plastic shopping bags in Kenya and slap a hefty price on thicker ones was floated in a report released today at the Governing Council.

Cash raised from the levy would go towards the setting up efficient recycling systems, says the report funded by UNEP and the National Environment Management Authority of Kenya.

At least two million plastic bags are now being handed out each year to people shopping at supermarkets and kiosks in Nairobi alone, the study by experts at the Kenya Institute for Public Policy Research and Analysis says.

The bags, many of which are so thin they are simply thrown away after one trip from the shops, have become a familiar eyesore in both urban and countryside areas. They block gutters and drains, choke farm animals and marine wildlife and pollute the soil as they gradually break down.

Wangari Mathaai, the assistant environment minister in Kenya and 2004 Nobel Peace Prize winner, has linked plastic bag litter with malaria. The bags, when discarded, can fill with rainwater offering ideal and new breeding grounds for the malaria-carrying mosquitoes.

A ban on bags less than 30 microns thick and the levy on thicker ones are among a raft of proposals aimed at reducing the use of polythene bags and

Operating the plastic bag levy could become a blueprint for similar schemes aimed at stemming the rising tide of other wastes confronting Kenya and countries across Africa and the developing world.

The "Global Environment Outlook Year Book 2004/2005" can be found at http://www.unep.org/gc/gc23/other_publications.asp.

The UNEP Governing Council website can be found at: www.unep.org/gc/gc23/