Environment and development
in coastal regions and in small islands
colbartn.gif (4535 octets)


Joint Statement by the Chairpersons

of the

Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC)
Man and the Biosphere (MAB) Programme
International Hydrological Programme (IHP)
Joint UNESCO-IUGS International Geological
Correlation Programme (IGCP)
Management of Social Transformations (MOST) Programme


Commission III, UNESCO General Conference

(Twenty-ninth Session, Paris, 4 November 1997)

The Chairpersons agree that UNESCO must address vigorously its responsibilities in science and the environment. They consider that threats to environmental security have become as great a risk to peace as military threats have been in past years. In order to safeguard the environment and sustain its resources for future generations, governments collectively need adequate knowledge and information. UNESCO should promote its natural and social science undertakings with this goal in mind and encourage its Member States to divert resources towards environmental security and towards the use of science in a culture of peace.

Policy must be informed by science, a sentiment reflected in the words of Gro Harlem Brundtland to the Special Session of the United Nations General Assembly last June, ‘as in most other cases of human endeavour, close co-operation between scientists and politicians is the only way to move forward. Science must underpin our policies. If we compromise on scientific facts and evidence, repairing nature will be enormously costly - if possible at all’. The Chairpersons recognize that their respective undertakings must address ways and means of making scientific results more useful and accessible to society. To tackle this requires a greater understanding of how science should be used, how science impacts on societal behaviour, how public awareness of science and better science education can affect decision-making, how traditional and new knowledge can work together and how to bring all countries to the necessary level of understanding and capability. UNESCO, with its breadth of responsibilities, should use its social and natural science programmes, in concert with its other sectors and programmes, to address the issues of environment and sustainable development.

Besides the obvious environmental imperatives, two overriding themes for sustainable development in coming years were identified by the Special Session in New York last June: poverty eradication and the changing of consumption and production patterns. These themes and the others recognized by the Special Session need to be dealt with in the context of globalization, governance issues and widespread population migrations. Moreover, the topical themes covered by UNESCO concerning freshwater, oceans, land and biodiversity, environmental problems related to the Earth’s crust, and natural disasters all figure on the list of priority environmental themes drawn up by the Special Session. The Chairpersons note with satisfaction that the new priority agenda for sustainable development established by the Special Session is fully congruent with the priority themes identified by UNESCO in the environmental and social sciences. However, they recognize that their respective programmes will have to redouble their efforts to seek new conceptual bases and to construct new paradigms to advance work on these themes.

Given the importance of UNESCO’s scientific undertakings related to the environment and sustainable development, it is clear that the Organization should consolidate its international lead functions in the follow-up to the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) and related major United Nations conferences, underpinning its role as inter-agency Task Manager in science and education for sustainable development within the United Nations system. The Chairpersons should like to recall at this juncture that UNESCO has been active in the field of environmental sciences for nearly 50 years. Milestones include the launching of the Arid Zone Programme in 1951, the creation of IOC in 1960 and the International Hydrological Decade in 1965, succeeded by IHP, the creation of MAB in 1971 and of IGCP one year later. Especially over the past 25 years, UNESCO has made a substantial contribution to improved understanding of climate change through a diverse set of programmes within these scientific undertakings.

UNESCO’s social science programmes have a similar long-standing tradition of development research. MOST was launched in 1994 as the first intergovernmental programme in the social sciences focusing on priority societal issues, such as the interwoven nature of key problems hampering sustainable development at national, regional and global levels. It is essential that UNESCO continues to make an important contribution to the follow-up to UNCED, to the World Summit for Social Development (WSSD) and other related major United Nations conferences, in keeping with the spirit of the United Nations system-wide partnership, with each sister organization making a specific contribution based on its experience and competence. Of equal importance to UNESCO is its partnership with the principal international non-governmental scientific organizations, such as the International Council of Scientific Unions (ICSU) and the International Social Science Council (ISSC), their member unions, committees and programmes.

The Chairpersons recognize the sobering, yet indisputable facts: there is at present a distinct lack of political will to move towards sustainable development. In the five years since UNCED, the global environment has actually deteriorated and sustainable development has made very little progress.

This situation is a great cause for concern to the Chairpersons. They hereby launch an appeal for a fresh commitment to further implementation of actions under Agenda 21 to ensure that, by the end of the next five-year period, some measurable progress will have been made. The Programme for the Further Implementation of Agenda 21 adopted by the Special Session of the United Nations General Assembly in June 1997 on the Overall Review of the Implementation of Agenda 21 must advance.

As the current public and intergovernmental debate on climate change so vividly demonstrates, many of the complex problems linked to the environment and development are characterized by inherent uncertainties and gaps in knowledge; yet these uncertainties and our limited long-term predictive capacity in no way justify delaying the implementation of ‘no-regrets’ policies and measures to prevent possible irreversible environmental damage. Scientists must share with policy-makers the responsibility for scientifically sound risk assessment and management of environmental, technological and socio-economic transformations. If emerging serious problems are to be dealt with at an early stage and sustainable development is to be given a chance, then there has to be a shift in emphasis from a situation of crisis management to a proactive, adaptive management regime.

Interdisciplinary co-operation

Interdisciplinary co-operation among the sciences having been a primary concern of the first two meetings of the five Chairpersons in 1993 and 1995, the present meeting reviewed progress in co-operation over the past two years. There can be no sustainable development without appropriate scientific backing. For most of today’s environmental and development issues, the sciences are essential for detecting and analysing problems, identifying solutions and ensuring scientifically sound policies and actions. At the same time, the complexity of problems makes interdisciplinarity and integrated approaches an important methodological tool. On the one hand, the natural sciences are going to have to move beyond traditional research paradigms if they are to understand complex regional and global natural systems and the functioning of the Earth as a single system. On the other hand, the interaction between development and the environment necessarily involves both the natural and social sciences, adding another dimension to interdisciplinary co-operation.

The Chairpersons would like to see a primary focus in their programmes on science for preventing and solving specific problems related to the environment and development. The byword of each of the five programmes should be scientific rigour in disciplinary work and pioneering vigour in interdisciplinary co-operation.

A unique opportunity to address the issue of the societal responsibility of the sciences is offered by the World Science Conference proposed for 1999. The Chairpersons express the hope that the Conference will be well-focused on key themes of international concern and relevance to the natural and social sciences, and the wish of the five programmes to become fully involved in the preparations for this major event, which should be conducted jointly by the natural and social sciences, and result in a visionary action plan for science in the twenty-first century of relevance to the scientific communities.

Recalling the prominent role attributed to the environmental and social sciences undertakings in UNESCO’s Medium-Term Strategy 1996-2001 in support of ‘relevant solutions to the key issues of socially and environmentally sustainable development’, the Chairpersons welcome the proposals contained in the Draft Programme and Budget 1998-1999 (29 C/5) concerning the individual science programmes and co-operation among them. They note with satisfaction the priority attached to fostering the development of national capacities in the environmental and social sciences, above all in developing countries.

UNESCO’s interdisciplinary mandate and the fact that science, education, culture and communication all come under the Organization’s roof make UNESCO an ideal institutional setting for interaction. The Chairpersons attach particular importance to enhancing interaction between science and education. Educating people on environmental issues and sustainable development leads to behavioural change and to a knowledgeable general public, which in turn generates public support. Science for its part plays a key role in providing an objective and balanced educational content, be it in a formal or non-formal learning environment.

Co-operation has improved over the current biennium through the establishment of the interdisciplinary project on coastal regions and small islands, and that on cities. Moreover, the Chairpersons note with satisfaction that the system of Focal Points introduced by the Director-General has demonstrated its usefulness. This system facilitates a co-ordinated contribution by UNESCO to the implementation of Agenda 21 and the UNCED-related conventions, and global and regional plans of action. Dialogue and joint activities among the National Committees or Focal Points of the five undertakings within individual countries continues to be the exception rather than the rule. The Chairpersons call upon the National Committees to organize during the next biennium at least one joint event, for example, a joint meeting of the Chairpersons of the National Committees or Focal Points, to be convened by the respective National Commissions for UNESCO.

Conclusions and recommendations

In addition to agreeing that UNESCO, with its breadth of responsibilities, should use its social and natural science programmes in concert with its other sectors and programmes to address the important issues in environment and sustainable development, the Chairpersons have drawn a number of conclusions during the meeting that serve as a basis for the following recommendations:

  1. Interdisciplinary co-operation should build upon the strengths of the five undertakings and make the most of their complementarity and potential synergies, while respecting the specificity and independence of each. Co-operation between the sciences and education, culture and communication needs to be reinforced throughout the Organization. Particular attention should be paid to the science-education link, in co-operation with the project ‘Educating for a sustainable future’ (EPD), in particular at the national level.
  2. As highlighted by the Earth Summit +5, the availability and quality of freshwater is set to become one of the most daunting problems of the twenty-first century. As this issue cannot be dealt with in a purely sectoral manner, it increasingly concerns the five undertakings. Accordingly, it is recommended that a framework for interaction and co-operation among the five programmes be developed in this area during the next biennium, with IHP acting as lead programme. At the same time, avenues shall be explored for collaboration with other UNESCO programmes and transdisciplinary projects.
  3. The 1998 International Year of the Ocean will provide an opportunity to highlight the importance of the oceans and seas not only for the functioning of planetary and regional life support systems, but also for the related global issues of food, water, energy, poverty, education and peace. The Year should be used to enhance co-operation between the oceanographic community and their land-based counterparts. In the view of the Chairpersons, the activities undertaken by IOC and the science programmes should be enhanced by complementary activities in education, culture and communication, and lead to continuing actions over succeeding years.
  4. In the view of the Chairpersons, the five scientific undertakings, with the participation of CSI and the Project on Cities, should define a co-operative approach with regard to UNESCO’s contribution to the implementation of the Global Programme of Action on the Protection of the Marine Environment from Land-based Activities.
  5. The coastal zone is common to all five programmes. While the Biological Diversity and Ramsar Conventions cover aspects of coastal conservation and management, the Chairpersons feel there is a need for a new approach - perhaps a new convention - to tackle the issue of coastal management and conservation. Such an agreement would need to emphasize the dynamic boundary nature of this environment, the loss of marine habitat through unsustainable development and the special needs of humans and other species. It would need to emphasize the nature of the environment, as well as the social and economic challenges, and the promises offered by truly sustainable use.
  6. While stressing the need for enhanced activities in the areas of training and scientific institution building, particularly in developing countries, the Chairpersons endorse the efforts to establish UNESCO Chairs on sustainable development and related subjects with the support of the five undertakings. These Chairs, as well as the UNESCO-Cousteau Ecotechnology Chairs, have a key role to play in fostering interdisciplinary training and relevant networking.
  7. Co-operation among the five scientific undertakings at the national and subregional levels is of critical importance. The respective National Committees and other bodies of the five scientific undertakings are called upon to enhance interaction and develop co-operative activities at the national and subregional levels. These should include interdisciplinary training, joint public information events and joint dialogue with policy-makers, administrations and the productive sector. The Chairpersons endorse the main lines of action proposed within draft document 29 C/5 (Programme and Budget for 1998-1999), which provide a solid framework for collaboration among the five scientific undertakings.
  8. Notwithstanding demands for greater financial stringency, the Chairpersons express concern that during the last biennium all five programmes suffered financial reductions and instability in their regular budgets. In the light of the environmental crisis and the consequent increasing responsibility of these programmes for sustainable development, it is imperative to enhance their vitality and vibrancy so that they may contribute to the total UNESCO effort in the interest of all Member States. UNESCO must ensure that the five undertakings have sufficient resources for them to participate fully in the implementation of the Programme for the Further Implementation of Agenda 21, in the Plan of Action of WSSD and in other related action plans.
  9. With regard to the different subject areas identified in the 1995 Joint Statement as being particularly appropriate for collaboration, the Chairpersons agree on the following:
  1. continued full support is to be extended to the two ongoing cross-sectoral projects on coastal management and small islands, and on cities. Resolving the problems of coastal zone management and urbanization requires an integrated approach involving the relevant scientific disciplines and the other fields of UNESCO’s competence;
  2. UNESCO’s scientific undertakings play a key role in the intellectual and scientific support for the implementation of the conventions on biological diversity, desertification and climate change. The co-operative and co-ordinated approach when dealing with these three conventions should be reinforced, including inter-agency co-operation;
  3. IGCP, IHP, IOC, MAB and MOST will provide strong scientific input to the International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction (IDNDR, 1990-2000) in its final phase and to national-level activities aimed at improving disaster preparedness;
  4. continued full support is to be extended for the development of the Global Ocean Observing System (GOOS), Global Terrestrial Observing System (GTOS) and Global Climate Observing System (GCOS) as well as for the elaboration of an integrated framework and close co-operation among these three observing systems;
  5. sustainability as a unifying concept and methodological tool must be further explored, with a view to enhancing its role in co-operation between the natural and social sciences.
  1. The summary report of the meeting of the five Chairpersons on 30 and 31 October 1997 includes additional, more detailed policy guidance and recommendations for the co-operative activities referred to throughout this Joint Statement. The secretariats of the five undertakings and the Bureau for Co-ordination of Environmental Programmes will need to implement the follow-up both to this Joint Statement and to the recommendations contained in the report. The secretariats shall also be responsible for bringing this Joint Statement to the attention of the IOC Assembly and the Councils/Board of IGCP, IHP, MAB and MOST, as well as the National Committees or Focal Points.
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