September 9, 2002


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The Rediff Special/ Ramesh Menon

The 10-day World Summit on Sustainable Development concluded on September 4 at Johannesburg in South Africa, but little news of interest has emerged. The largest meeting ever held by the United Nations in an attempt to reverse the ecological degradation and falling living standards that afflict much of the world, it was attended by some 65,000 people, from heads of state and corporate executives to representatives of civic organisations.

However, unlike the last summit at Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 1992, this WSSD generated more scepticism than excitement. That summit seemed like a move in the right direction as the nations of the world spelt out what needed to be done to save the earth and usher in sustainable development. But the agreements that were drafted then are gathering dust, mainly because developed nations like the United States continue to ignore larger considerations to protect their narrow vested interests. For example, the Kyoto Protocol, which aimed at combating global warming, has still not been ratified by the United States. In doing so, it has sent out a message that it will do what it wants irrespective of what the rest of the world feels.

United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan agrees the results since Rio are disappointing: "In some respects, conditions are worse than they were 10 years ago. The environment is threatened by unsustainable patterns of consumption and production, and international aid is both insufficient and declining."

Under the circumstances, is there any hope that the Johannesburg WSSD will be a path-breaker? Will the north-south divide continue or will the developed world see sense in helping the developing world work towards a sustainable future? Or will it be another Rio that makes promises knowing well they need not be kept?

Dr R K Pachauri, chairman, UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, told rediff that if he did not sound too excited about the summit, it was because he did not want to be disappointed. "This summit must start the process of seeing that the Rio agreements get moving. Johannesburg must not be seen as an end. It has to be seen as a process and all it intends to do will take time. It is not going to be easy. We cannot ignore the reality of each nation's vested interests and selfish attitude. But such a summit is crucial for a developing country like India as there is a lot at stake."

At the Rio summit, nations finally agreed on how the world would combat the deterioration of land, air and water, conserve the diversity of living things and seek economic growth within the earth's capacity to support life. Since then, numerous UN conferences mouthed the same rhetoric, promoting education, helping women, and reducing poverty.

Environmentalists remember the sense of achievement when the Rio summit adopted Agenda 21, an unprecedented collective plan of action for sustainable development. Agenda 21 contains over 2,500 wide-ranging recommendations for action. Among them were plans to cut down wasteful consumption, combat poverty, protect the atmosphere, oceans and bio-diversity and go in for sustainable agriculture.

Ideally, it was hoped the rich countries would bear a large slice of the responsibility to maintain sustainable growth across the world as most developing countries like India entered the global market much later. Ten years down the road, however, Agenda 21 continues to remain words on paper.

Diseases like HIV, AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis are undermining the very foundations of society in many countries. Climatic changes, loss of bio-diversity, deforestation, water scarcity and over-fishing have become issues that need immediate redresss. The OECD agrees that none of these issues have easy solutions.

Today, over six billion people inhabit the earth; a 240 per cent increase over the past 50 years. By 2050, the population is projected to rise to 9 billion.

Around one billion people lack access to safe drinking water. This, coupled with inadequate water supply, accounts for 10 per cent of all diseases in developing countries. The amount of fresh water available to each person in 1950 was 17,000 cubic metres. In 1995, it declined to 7,000 cubic metres and is now going down so fast that up to 5 billion people will struggle for water in another 20 years. The assumption that future wars would be fought over water is gaining credence.

Nearly 50 per cent of fish stocks are fully exploited. Over 20 per cent are over-exploited or depleted.

Tropical forests are disappearing at the rate of four Switzerlands every year.

Infant mortality is 10 times higher in developing countries than in industrialised ones.

These facts are too stark to be ignored.

The UN has said any effort to build a truly sustainable way of life required the integration of action in three key areas -- economic growth and equity, social development and conservation of natural resources and the environment.

The Johannesburg summit largely dealt with issues related to water, energy, health, agriculture and biodiversity. The increasing levels of both population and poverty were important topics as they were increasingly seen as stumbling blocks to sustainable development. Along with population and poverty and the relationship among them, these constituted the nub of the deliberations for arriving at mutually acceptable solutions.

As the developed world is responsible for more than half the carbon dioxide emissions from industrial sources and land use, developing countries are demanding they should -- as per the Rio agreement -- increase their overseas development assistance from a dismal 0.3 per cent to at least 0.7 per cent of their gross national product.

But they have fallen far short of fulfilling their pledge to devote more resources to help poorer nations. In fact, only the Nordic countries and the Netherlands have met the target, while development aid from other countries has actually declined despite the fact that their economies, measured by annual output, grew by a total of more than $10 trillion during the 1990s.

Vishwanath Anand, vice-chairperson, National Environment Appellate Authority told rediff: "India is waiting for the promises made at Rio to be honoured. India was among the leading developing nations to express concern over the lack of overseas development assistance. Poverty and environment degradation go together and, unless developing countries have access to a requisite amount of funds, they will not be able to ensure sustainable development."

Two crucial conventions -- Agenda 21 and a convention on climatic change and biodiversity -- were signed during the Rio summit. Since then, carbon dioxide emissions, which are widely held responsible for climate change and global warming, have increased by 10 per cent worldwide and by 18 per cent in the United States.

More than 180 nations had agreed to protect biodiversity, but the two richest sources of diversity, coral reefs and tropical forests, have been seriously degraded while fewer than 40 nations have put conservation strategies into place. Progress under Agenda 21 is limited because of lack of funding.

It is estimated that rich countries will have to shell out $56 billion just for the reduction of climate warming gases by 2010. None of developing nations believe it will be done. Subsidies on fossil fuels by rich countries over the same period will total $57 billion.

At present, the annual development assistance by rich countries to poor countries is $53.7 billion, while farmers in rich countries collect $335 billion in subsidies. It is figures like these that fuelled cynicism at Johannesburg.

India is one of the most vulnerable countries as far as environmental degradation is concerned. Environment and Forest Minister T R Baalu says India is committed to sustainable development and nothing untoward should be read into the fact that Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee did not attend the Johannesburg summit. Baalu believes developed countries will have to take the lead in helping developing nations get the technology for a cleaner world at an affordable price.

But leading environmentalist Vandana Shiva, who was at Johannesburg, told rediff: "This earth summit could mean the undoing of India's sovereignty as far as resources go. India has to fight hard to bring issues like environment back into focus; countries like the United States look at these summits as a free trade meet, as if that was the only objective of good governance."

Design: Uday Kuckian

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