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Rape of Earth continues

The New Straits Times, June 16, 2002

By Dzulkifli Abdul Razak

THE year 1972 saw the World Environment Summit being held in Stockholm. Then came the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. Soon it will be the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in August in Johannesburg.

The last preparations took place in Bali, Indonesia, last week. Some are already expressing doubts about the putcome.

As though to underscore this, the United Nations last month compiled the Global Environment Outlook, charting not only the environmental degradation in the three decades since Stockholm, but also for the next 30 years. In the 450 page report, many of the predictions made continue to be alarming, given the prevailing ‘market first' practice that dominates our current thinking. For example, 70 per cent of the earth's surface is expected to be severely affected due to destruction of the natural environment by human activities.

 Already 15 per cent has been degraded in this way. Consequently, more than 1,000 species of birds, about 12 per cent of the world's total, are threatened with extinction. Similar numbers of mammalian species (about 25 per cent of the world's total) face the same fate. As for the fish, about one third of the world's stock will be depleted or over exploited. A recently launched UN online atlas of the world's oceans, suggests that all the 17 of the world's main fishing areas have reached or exceeded their natural limits, with nine in serious decline (Independent, UK, June 6).

Water sources are not spared either. The continuing degradation of the oceans has been identified as one of the more pressing issues. So too coastal waters where fisheries once thrived are being polluted by run off. Oxygen is being depleted and the number of poisonous algal species identified in the past 20 years have nearly tripled.

As for the rivers, half are seriously ‘endangered.' Some 60 per cent of the 227 largest rivers are disrupted by dams and other engineering works. Water shortage thus is expected to be a major problem for more than half the world's population, with 65 per cent in Asia Pacific region, excluding West Asia where 95 per cent are already facing severe problems. Today, 40 per cent of the world is short of water, the report says.

Across Arabia in particular, a water crisis is emerging as ground water is pumped out faster rate than rain can replenish it. Seawater is also increasingly being drawn into under-ground fresh water supplies, some for as far as 10km inland as in Chennai, India. 

In a similar way, arable land can be turned ‘salty' as in Iraq where about 30 per cent of arable land has been abandoned due to salt ‘poisoning'. Thus, food production can be severely affected, leading to crises.

Other factors include overgrazing, accounting for 35 per cent of soil degradation, deforestation (30 per cent), and surprisingly more than 25 per cent by agriculture.

And when water sources are pol-luted, food produce such as shellfish is more susceptible to contamination. These grim facts do not augur well for the world's population. Although the deprived and down-trodden seem to be the hardest hit in the short-term, eventually everyone will the price.

The executive director of the UN Environmental Programme (UNEP) says: "Without the environment there can never be the kind of development needed to secure a fair deal for this or future generations." He emphasises the need for concrete actions and political will to change the current trend.

This is not wishful thinking because things do change for the better following appropriate policies and decisive actions. For one, the hole in the ozone layer is reportedly ‘smaller' due to a decrease in the use of harmful gases and ozone depleting chemicals in more than 110 countries.

At the same time, species like the whale are said to be recovering in numbers since 1986 when a moratorium on commercial whaling was imposed. And there is now real hope that other animals will recover likewise now that about 10 per cent of the globe (12 million hectares), is in protected areas, like national parks. Clearly there is no shortage of "declarations, agreements, guidelines and legally binding treaties designed to address environmental problems"  to quote the UNEP executive director. What is in direly short supply is "the political courage and innovative financing needed to implement these deals and steer a healthier, more prosperous course for planet earth".

Recommended website: http://www.unep.org


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