Time to launch war on poverty, environmental degradation: Worldwatch

Updated: Jan 21 2002, 05:30am hrs
First, the good news. Deaths from pneumonia, diarrhoea and tuberculosis are declining worldwide. The progress in phasing out the production of ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons and harnessing wind power and spread of organic farming is encouraging. A number of multinationals, such as BP, DuPont, and Nike, are committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Despite such social and environmental advances since the Earth Summit at Rio in 1992, the recently released State of the World 2002 says that many other important trends have continued to worsen. Published by the Worldwatch Institute, a Washington DC-based research organisation, the report was launched ahead of the UN World Summit on Sustainable Development to be held in August/September 2002 in Johannesburg.

Says Christopher Flavin, president of Worldwatch, in the report: “Ten years after the Rio Earth Summit, we are still far from ending the economic and environmental marginalisation that afflict billions of people.” He adds: “Despite the prosperity of the 1990s, the divide between rich and poor is widening in many countries, undermining social and economic stability. And pressures on the world’s natural systems, from global warming to the depletion and degradation of resources such as fisheries and fresh water, have further destabilised societies.”

The numbers are quite chilling. Deaths from AIDS have increased more than six-fold over the 1990s; global emissions of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide climbed more than 9 per cent; and 27 per cent of the world’s coral reefs are now severely damaged, which is up from 10 per cent 10 years ago. Some 14,000-30,000 people continue to die each day from water-borne diseases. The average person today carries levels of lead that are 500-1,000 times higher than our pre-industrial ancestors.

Going further, the report advocates a global war on poverty and environmental degradation that is as aggressive and well funded as the war on terrorism.

This is obviously necessary to address the root cause rather than the symptoms. The reasons behind negative trends are many. The report stresses that environmental policies are a low priority the world over. The growing number of international environmental treaties and other initiatives suffer from weak commitments and inadequate funding. For example, while the United Nations Environment Program barely manages to survive on an annual budget of roughly $100 million, military expenditures in the world adds up to more than $2 billion a day.

Similarly, foreign aid spending is stagnating. While there has been more than 30 per cent expansion in global economic output since 1992, the aid spending declined substantially from $69 billion in 1992 to $53 billion in 2000.

Even Third World indebtedness has only got worse. The total debt burden in developing and transition countries has climbed 34 per cent since Rio, reaching $2.5 trillion in 2000, points out the report.

The solutions offered to tackle such negative trends go beyond the obvious. Saying that increased financial and political support for international social and environmental programmes is a necessary but not sufficient condition for success in the transition to a sustainable world, the report argues that the active involvement of other sectors like non-governmental organisations and the business community will also be essential.

In the years since Rio, NGOs have become adept at using the new tools of the information age to organise effective cross-border alliances. NGOs activated millions of people in a series of important campaigns in the 1990s, including the Kyoto Protocol on climate change, the ban on antipersonnel landmines, and the International Criminal Court, notes the report.

The advocacy for NGOs’ role is backed up by an India example. In January 2001, a shipment of mercury from the US was rejected by workers in Mumbai and returned. Says one of the authors, Anne McGinn: “This is an important example of the power of environmental activism.” She was responding to an e-mail query from The Financial Express.

Co-author Lisa Mastny e-mails another Indian example: “One local NGO in Kerala (Thanal) recently launched Zero Waste Kovalam, a project that aims to convert the village into a zero-waste community by incorporating strategies of reduction, recycling, and reuse into the various waste stream. They hope that, with government support, the idea will catch on in other destinations in India that are suffering from waste disposal problems.”

Of course, the authors also stand by the conventional wisdom. Says Ms McGinn: “More attention needs to be given to phasing out leaded gasoline and coal burning, and the increase in consumer demand for plastic products and building materials; and the rise of industrial sectors in India and China that involve toxic materials and practices, including chemical and plastic production, petrochemical refineries, pulp and paper manufacturing, pesticide manufacturing and use, mining and others.” She adds: “In India, DDT use for malaria control has declined significantly, but current efforts to phase-in safer alternative methods of vector control and disease prevention must be given more assistance and attention to ensure their long-term viability.”

Immediate action on all front seems to be important particularly for populous countries like India and China. Says Hilary French, project director, in an online interview with this paper: “If environmental and social trends continue to deteriorate, we are likely to see a breakdown of both ecological and social stability. Declining environmental and social conditions will in turn translate into economic hardships for millions of people.” The consequences need not be over-emphasised.