13 August 2002

Africa: Call for 'Sense of Urgency' as Johannesburg Summit Approaches

Washington, DC — Actual progress on the ground is far slower than hoped and in many cases we are going backwards, Nitin Desai, Secretary-General of the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) said Tuesday announcing the release of a new United Nations report: Global Challenge, Global Opportunity.

The report by the U.N. Department for Economic and Social Affairs, which Desai heads, found that capacity to produce enough food is diminishing, especially in developing nations where almost 800 million people are chronically undernourished, although the number is declining.

"The real threat that we face now is the insidious global spread of poverty and environmental stress, and that is the real security threat that we need to address," said Desai who will chair the WSSD Summit.

The report, which focuses on trends among the earth's natural resources and human development, found that 40 percent of the world's population face water shortages, global sea levels are rising in a "clear indication" of global warming, many plant and animal species are at risk of extinction, "including half of the large primates, man's closet relatives."

During the 1990s, the report said, 220 million acres of forests an area larger than Venezuela was destroyed, almost all in tropical regions in Africa and Latin America. Every year, more than 3 million people die from the effects of air pollution.

The purpose of the report, said Desai speaking to reporters in a telephone press conference, "is to provide a sense in quantitative terms of where are we now and where are we moving to; and from that we hope that we can derive a sense of urgency on the steps we need to take to correct these trends."

Part of the challenge, said Desai, "was to try and put all of these things in a compact way." For instance, he said, take the death rates from respiratory illness and the high rates are in sub-Saharan Africa, North Africa and developing Asia compared to other parts of the world: in Tanzania, according to the report, children younger than five are three times more likely to have been sleeping in a room with a traditional cook stove (fueled by wood or dung or crop residues) than healthy children. In Gambia, children carried on their mother's backs as they cook over smokey stoves contract pneumonia at a rate 2.5 times higher than unexposed children.

Desai says this is a problem that can be fixed, given commitment and resources. Improved biomass cook stoves are the most feasible option, the report says. The "Upesi Stove" developed in Kenya with its clay liner in a mud and stone hearth uses 40 percent less fuel and emits 60 percent less smoke. "We now know that we are talking about 3 million people in the world dying essentially because of one form or the other of air pollution" said Desai. "If you had a disease that was taking away 3 million people a year you surely would treat it as some sort of emergency which requires an urgent response."

Improving agricultural yields is a "top priority" according to the report. Close to 30 percent of the 1.5 billion hectares of agricultural land in the world "is in some ways under stress. On this issue, says Desai, "the focus is very much on Africa." A new rice variety combining the hardiness of African rice varieties with the productivity of Asian rice varieties "is going to be launched in or around Johannesburg at the time of the Summit," said Desai.

Another especially important initiative for Africa is the convention on desertification. "We have some real prospects of being able to fund some of the activities that countries will want to undertake as part of their obligations under the Convention on Desertification."

Developing nations have urged financial specificity on development goals at the upcoming WSSD, and also want discussion on lowering trade barriers to expand market access. In the view of the United States however, and several other wealthy nations, this would reopen agreements reached at the World Trade Organization meeting in Doha, Qatar and the summit on financial development held in Monterrey, Mexico.

According to Desai, a July 17 "friend of the chair" meeting between nations on both sides of the issues has made dialogue instead of argument possible. "The issue of how do we reflect the outcome of Monterrey and Doha in what comes up in Johannesburg is an issue, but I do not see it as an insuperable one. People recognize that Doha and Monterrey have set down certain markers when it comes to trade and finance and we are to work within the framework provided by those markers."

Desai said he was pleased with U.S. support The Bush administration "is very fully engaged in the summit." President Bush who is planning a January trip to Africa is not expected at the Johannesburg Summit. Secretary of State Colin Powell will lead the U.S. delegation, according to State Department sources.

President Bush's absence notwithstanding, a number of heads of state and government are expected in Johannesburg. These include the prime ministers of Britain, Canada, Italy and Japan, French president Jacques Chirac, Chancellor Gerhard Schröder of Germany, the presidents of Mexico and Brazil and numerous African presidents.

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