“Environmental challenges that were identified in the 1990s continue to haunt the region and are in fact exacerbated by the emergence of new challenges linked to enhanced poverty and rapid globalisation,” said the Executive Secretary of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP), Kim Hak-Su, launching the State of the Environment Report in Asia and the Pacific 2000 in Bangkok on 5 June.

With the disappearance and disturbance of ecosystems, the rural population, mainly the poor, are migrating in large numbers to cities. Consequently, the urban population of the Asian and Pacific region which stood at 1.4 billion in 2000 has doubled in the last 20 years, the report stated. “[The urban population] is projected to increase by 800 million in the next 20 years,” Hak-Su announced. “This amounts to the establishment of a new city of 150,000 people every day for the next one and a half-decade. The magnitude of the challenge is indeed daunting.”

Like poverty, globalisation also had serious impacts on the natural resources and environment over the last decades. It has contributed to the loss of forest and biodiversity in the pursuit of maximising export earnings, the report stated. Additionally, the Asian financial crisis resulting in economic and social turmoil also had adverse effects on the environment. In many countries, environmental budgets have been reduced, leading to fewer investments in the conservation of resources, mitigation of environmental degradation and the development of clean technologies.

Land degradation and desertification are also on the increase. The annual losses due to land degradation and desertification have been estimated at US$10 billion in South Asia, and US$ 700 million in North-East Asia. In Central Asian countries the losses amount to 3% of GDP. Almost 500 million Asians have been affected by desertification directly or indirectly. Water quality has also deteriorated steadily by a combination of factors such as uncontrolled discharge of sewage and industrial effluents, chemicals added by agricultural run-off and undisposed human excreta.

Meanwhile, China’s top environmental official, Xie Zhenhua, director of the State Environmental Protection Administration has warned that some 90% of grasslands, which cover about 40% of national territory, have been degraded. This has lead to worsening desertification and salting of the land, he said, adding that deserts in the northwest are gradually encroaching on populated areas, worsening sand storms that strike cities.

ESCAP’s report estimates that provision of environmental infrastructure and utilities such as water supply, sanitation, energy and transport in urban areas alone will cost around 10 trillion dollars in the next 25 to 30 years in the ‘business as usual’ scenario. ESCAP, Hak-Su said, has already undertaken some significant initiatives towards evolving a consensus on how to improve the environment. It convened a Ministerial Conference on Environment and Development in September 2000 at Kitakyushu, Japan, which adopted the Regional Action Programme on Environment and Development in Asia and the Pacific, 2001-2005 (see related story). The Programme advocates action in eight priority areas, among them the Kitakyushu Initiative for Clean Environment, intended to improve the urban environment primarily through local initiatives.

“ESCAP’s message is a call for immediate action, that must involve all stakeholders, otherwise the environment will to continue to deteriorate further at a catastrophic rate,” said Hak-Su. “Is Asia heading for another crisis? An environmental crisis? The alarm bells are already sounding, calling for urgent attention of the international community. This is the major challenge confronting us in the new millennium, which must be squarely addressed by the World Summit on Sustainable Development next year.”

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