• English

Geneva, 15 January 2004
Opening statement by Mrs. Brigita Schmögnerová,
Executive Secretary

Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,

It gives me great pleasure to welcome you to the first Regional Implementation Forum on Sustainable Development hosted by the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe. The high attendance here today is proof of the importance that the UNECE member States attach to the issue of sustainable development and of their willingness to meet the dual purpose of this Forum, namely to review the progress made in our region since the World Summit on Sustainable Development and analyse the remaining problems and challenges, on the one hand, and on the other to contribute to the review year of the Commission on Sustainable Development.

Sustainable development has been defined as "development which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." It is based on inter-generational solidarity and addresses the economic, social and environmental dimensions of development. In our discussions we have to keep all three dimensions in mind.

The Commission on Sustainable Development has decided to focus this first cycle of its multiyear follow-up to the Johannesburg Summit on water, sanitation and human settlements. This Forum is, therefore, a welcome opportunity to raise political awareness about these issues, which play an important role in sustainable development and are very much relevant to the UNECE region. UNECE is pleased to provide a forum, not only to policy makers but also to the many international, national and non-governmental organizations that work on water, sanitation and human settlements throughout our region so that they can share their experiences. Apart from this catalysing role, the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe itself also has much of experience and expertise that it can contribute to other regions and global processes.

The UNECE region is economically, socially and environmentally very heterogeneous. The water and sanitation problems that affect it are many: poor waste-water treatment, contaminated drinking water, water-related disease, depleted groundwater resources and water leakage, to name but a few.

An estimated 120 million of its people do not have access to safe drinking water and adequate sanitation. As a result, they are also more vulnerable to water-related diseases. The prevention, control and reduction of such diseases, therefore, remain important challenges for many UNECE countries. To meet these challenges improved water management is vital.

The water quality in rivers and lakes has improved as a direct result of better waste-water treatment. Nevertheless, hazardous chemicals still make their way into surface water, and, particularly in Western and Central Europe, groundwater is polluted with nitrates and pesticides, and drinking water from shallow aquifers does not always meet applicable health standards.

Many countries depend on groundwater as their main source of drinking water and are turning to deep aquifers to meet demand. The measures taken to manage demand for water and ensure its rational use do not go far enough. More needs to be done to protect the sources of drinking water against both pollution and overuse.

On the positive side, there has recently been a move towards a more integrated approach to water management in the region. Most UNECE countries have embedded the "polluter pays" and the "user pays" principles in their legislation. However, passing legislation is not sufficient; tougher action must be taken to enforce it.

Our region is fortunate in having a legal framework, negotiated under the auspices of UNECE, to address transboundary cooperation on the environment. Such international law-making is a good example of what can be achieved when governments work together with NGOs, the business community and other stakeholders who will be involved in implementation, enforcement and compliance measures.

In human settlements, too, the challenges are numerous: urban poverty, social exclusion, homelessness, physical decay, unsustainable production and consumption patterns, inadequate institutional capacity and lack of transparency in policy implementation.

UNECE countries with traditional market economies have enjoyed strong economic growth in the past decade. Generally speaking, living standards there have improved. Yet, the distribution of wealth from economic growth is increasingly, in some of them, uneven and this growing disparity between rich and poor is also apparent in our cities. Urban poverty has become a significant social and political challenge.

Those most at risk of poverty are the long-term unemployed, large or one-parent families and people with little education. They are increasingly isolated in our societies. They have no access to essential services and have little political say. Innovative urban development policies will have to contribute to poverty reduction which is a comprehensive and complex task. Clearly, it is not enough to help the poor survive; inclusive social housing and empowerment policies, employment policy, development of services of general interest are required to give them training, access to services and job opportunities.

For the accomplishment of this complex task, the role of local governments is indispensable. Indeed, a number of local authorities have succeeded in achieving economically productive, socially inclusive and environmentally sound cities, and promoting sustainable production and consumption patters. Some 6,400 municipalities have accepted Local Agenda 21 initiatives, advancing a culture of good practice and excellence and promoting democratic governance that responds to the needs of their communities.

In Central and Eastern Europe, many responsibilities have been decentralized and devolved to local authorities. However, the funding that these local authorities receive is not commensurate with their new responsibilities and they themselves have only limited fiscal powers. This is inevitably eroding the quality of basic services, such as water and sanitation services, household waste management and public transport. To overcome such shortcomings, some local authorities are forming public-private partnerships. Such arrangements provide for an efficient delivery system, while at the same time ensuring that the services are available to all.

The wholesale privatization of housing to the sitting tenants in these countries has had mixed results. Homeownership has increased -- in some countries to 90% -- but many of the new owners do not have the financial resources required for the maintenance of their homes. This will lead to further decay, which will eventually become irreversible, particularly in prefabricated high-rise buildings, where 40% of residents in large cities live.

The large-scale privatization of housing also means that there is less social housing available for the poor. Throughout the UNECE region, homelessness is now an acute problem. It is estimated that in the European Union and in the United States alone some 6 million are homeless and another 23 million are inadequately housed. Homelessness and inadequate housing in transition and post-transition States is simply widening.

Too many people still live on the margins of society. They have few opportunities for contributing to their local communities. It is clear, therefore, that the search for effective urban regeneration strategies to create job opportunities, recycle brownfield sites and improve housing and infrastructure must continue. This is the way to deal with physical deprivation, social exclusion and environmental degradation at the level of local communities. To make our cities more sustainable, urban planners also have to recognize the need for compact city planning with higher densities, mixed communities, shorter commuting distances and better services, including shops, schools and leisure facilities. The goal must be to foster economic and social prosperity and support democratic governance.

The UNECE region is characterized by major heterogeneity in water, sanitation and human settlements developments. This is an opportunity for less advanced countries to learn from the experiences of more advanced countries and share among themselves lessons learned.

I very much hope that it is in this spirit of cooperation and solidarity that the round tables and debates of the next two days will take place, so that the UNECE region as a whole can assess the scale of the sustainable development challenges ahead and raise political awareness of them.

Finally, I also welcome this opportunity to contribute to the upcoming session of the Commission on Sustainable Development. I strongly believe that input from the regional commissions, including from UNECE, constitutes a key contribution to the global process, as it provides for an exchange of experiences with other regions and helps to anchor the global process in regional realities. I am therefore looking forward to a long-term partnership with the Commission on Sustainable Development.

Thank you.