Some of the key priority areas to emerge from the recently concluded World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) is 'WEHAB' covering Water, Energy, Health, Agriculture and Biodiversity. These five themes have a profound effect on the way we live, our interaction with the natural world, and indeed the future of mankind itself.
Much needs to be done to create a world that can sustain not just now, but our future generations as well – in remedial measures to undo the errors of the past, in preventive measures to make sure destructive practices are not undertaken, and in management practices that create a policy framework to track and monitor our everyday activities.
The WSSD has given us WEHAB to work on. The challenge is to highlight these themes, prioritize our work in terms of its impacts – positive and negative – on the themes, and initiating a broad-based dialogue on channeling resources to incorporate the concepts of sustainability in all spheres of our daily lives.
Why are the WEHAB themes critical?
Water and sanitation.
More than 1 billion people are without safe drinking water. Twice that number lack adequate sanitation. And more than 3 million people die every year from diseases caused by unsafe water. Unless we take swift and decisive action, by 2025 as much as two thirds of the world's population may be living in countries that face serious water shortage. We need to improve access. We need to improve the efficiency of water use, for example by getting more "crop per drop" in agriculture, which is the largest consumer of water. And we need better watershed management, and to reduce leakage, especially in the many cities where water losses are an astonishing 40 percent or more of total water supply.
Energy is essential for development. Yet two billion people currently go without, condemning them to remain in the poverty trap. We need to make clean energy supplies accessible and affordable. We need to increase the use of renewable energy sources and improve energy efficiency. And we must not flinch from addressing the issue of overconsumption -- the fact that people in the developed countries use far more energy per capita than those in the developing world. States must ratify the Kyoto Protocol, which addresses not only climate change but also a host of unsustainable practices. States must also do away with the perverse energy subsidies and tax incentives that perpetuate the status quo and stifle the development of new and promising alternatives.
The links between the environment and human health are powerful. Toxic chemicals and other hazardous materials are basic elements of development. Yet more than one billion people breathe unhealthy air, and three million people die each year from air pollution -- two thirds of them poor people, mostly women and children, who die from indoor pollution caused by burning wood and dung. Tropical diseases such as malaria and African guinea worm are closely linked with polluted water sources and poor sanitation. Conventions and other steps aimed at reducing waste and eliminating the use of certain chemicals and substances can go a long way to creating a healthier environment. But we also need to know better how and where to act -- meaning that research and development are especially important, particularly studies that focus more on the diseases of the poor than has historically been the case.
Land degradation affects perhaps as much as two thirds of the world's agricultural land. As a result, agricultural productivity is declining sharply, while the number of mouths to feed continues to grow. In Africa, especially, millions of people are threatened with starvation. We must increase agricultural productivity, and reverse human encroachment on forests, grasslands and wetlands. Research and development will be crucial, as will implementation of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification.
Biodiversity and Ecosystem Management.
Biodiversity is declining at an unprecedented rate -- as much as a thousand times what it would be without the impact of human activity. Half of the tropical rainforests and mangroves have already been lost. About 75 percent of marine fisheries have been fished to capacity. 70 percent of coral reefs are endangered. We must reverse this process -- preserving as many species as possible, and clamping down on illegal and unsustainable fishing and logging practices -- while helping people who currently depend on such activities to make a transition to more sustainable ways of earning their living.
Note: The five WEHAB senarions described above were adopted from a speech by the UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan given in New York on 14 May 2002, as a precursor to WSSD.