Seas in Asia, North West Pacific and West Africa at Highest Risk from Land-Based Pollution

Amsterdam/Nairobi, 3 October 2002 - The coastal habitats, fisheries, marine wildlife and the people of the Asian, North West Pacific and West African sea regions, are the most threatened in the world from untreated sewage discharged into coastal waters.

A report, detailing the global threat to coastal populations and the environment from untreated sewage discharges, has been prepared by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in response to a target on sanitation agreed at the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD).

It will assist the UNEP Regional Seas Programmes in taking appropriate action to contribute to achieving the WSSD-target. This aims, by the year 2015, to halve the number of people that have no access to basic sanitation services. Almost 40 % of the world population lives in coastal areas, less then 60 km from the shoreline.

Studies (see notes to editors) show that over 800 million people, or 40 per cent of the un-served population in coastal countries, are living in the South Asian Seas region. They have no access to basic sanitation services, putting them at high risk from sewage-related diseases and death.

It also means that the level of untreated domestic wastes being discharged into South Asia's coastal waters are likely to be the highest in the world, increasing the risk of shellfish contamination and the chance of toxic, algal blooms poisoning fish and wildlife.

Precious habitats, such as South Asia's coral reefs, are likely to be under increased stress as a result of the high levels of nutrients and suspended solids linked with the discharges.

The report, to be unveiled today, shows that the second most vulnerable region are the seas of East Asia. Here 515 million people, or 25 per cent of the un-served population in coastal countries, are without access to proper sanitation services, followed by the seas of the North West Pacific where 414 million people have no access to basic sanitation systems.

The sea areas with the highest provision of sewage treatment, and thus the lowest threat to the health of coastal waters, include the North East Atlantic and the Arctic. Here, only a few people are ranked as being without proper sanitation services.

Klaus Toepfer, UNEP's Executive Director, said: "Lack of adequate sanitation has been emerging as one of the biggest threats to human health. It is estimated that global economic burden due to ill-health, disease and death related to the pollution of coastal waters is running at $ 16 billion a year".

"But this is also an environmental issue affecting the health of coastal waters, coastal wildlife and coastal habitats while impacting the livelihoods of fishermen and the tourist industry. An urgent effort is needed to reduce the risks by harnessing the will and finances of governments, local authorities, affected communities, business and industry. At the recently held WSSD, which closed on 4 September last month, nations agreed to halve the number of people without access to sanitation services by 2015 and back this up with increased funding," he said.

Wastewater Emission Targets needed?

"This new study highlights the regions where our efforts are most urgently needed. One way of doing this is to set realistic but ambitious Wastewater Emission Targets (WET), echoing those that have been developed in many parts of the world for emissions of toxic chemicals and noxious gases from power stations and factories," added Mr. Toepfer.

"These, linked to a time table when the targets should be met, will allow us tackle this scourge once and for all so that the current and future generations can have access to safe, healthy, drinking water and enjoy coastal areas free from contaminated bathing waters and polluted natural resources," he said.

Cees van de Guchte, Senior Programme Officer, responsible for the Strategic Action Plan on Municipal Wastewater of UNEP's Global Programme of Action for the Protection of the Marine Environment from Land-Based Activities (GPA), which is based in the Hague, Netherlands, said: "We have to consider Wastewater Emission Targets as instruments for prioritization, resource allocation and progress reporting towards achieving the global targets agreed upon at the WSSD in Johannesburg. One additional target, which we believe is do-able at the global level, is to have a minimum of 20 per cent of coastal cities implementing sustainable and environmentally sound water supply and wastewater treatment systems by 2012. This can be met using alternative technological, infrastructure, managerial and financial approaches to the traditional large scale investments, paying due attention to operation and maintenance costs and to equitable water service pricing".

"The ultimate goal is to provide safe drinking water and proper sanitation to all the world's people by 2025. Some experts estimate that this would cost $180 billion a year: 2-3 times more then present investments in the water sector. It may seem high, but the benefits in terms of disease reduction and dramatic environmental improvements to the coastal and marine environment are also high," he said.

The report notes that in many developing parts of the world, the increased levels of sanitation coverage and wastewater treatment are being overwhelmed by rising populations. For example in the South Asian Seas region, access to improved sanitation during the period 1990 to 2000 has benefited 220 million people. But during that period the population grew by 222 million leaving 825 million still without access to acceptable sanitation systems and thousands of miles of coastline vulnerable to pollution. In the East African region the numbers un-served even doubled over the last decade, to 19 million people having no access to basic sanitation.

Mr. Van de Guchte said that in some places wastewater treatment systems, mirroring those in place in Europe and the United States, might be needed. However numerous, alternative, low-cost techniques also exist. These include dry sanitation and natural sewage filtering systems, such as ponds, reed beds and mangrove swamps, and possibilities for re-use and refilling of groundwater reservoirs.

"This can give the environment a double-benefit: Many mangrove swamps and reed beds, important habitats for wildlife such as birds and fishes, are being cleared and drained for agriculture and other activities. If more people are aware of their use as 'natural' waste water treatment systems, then more will be conserved for their economic and health benefits as well as for their importance for nature and wildlife," he said.

Note to Editors: The report ranks the South Asian Seas at highest risk of pollution as a result of 825 million people being without basic sanitation services followed by East Asian Regional seas, 515 million; North West Pacific, 414 million; West and central African, 107 million; South West Atlantic, 45 million; Wider Caribbean, 34 million; Mediterranean, 26 million; Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, 21 million; East African, 19 million; ROPME, 18 million; Black Sea, 14 million; South East Pacific, 12 million; South Pacific, two million.

The report, "Water Supply and Sanitation Coverage in UNEP Regional Seas - Need For Wastewater Emission Targets?", has been produced by the UNEP/GPA Coordination Office. It is based on an analysis of data from the Global Water Supply and Sanitation Assessment, 2000 Report (World Health Organization (WHO)/ UNICEF- the United Nations Childrens Fund / Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council (WSSCC) 2001). UNEP/GPA has worked closely with these organizations in preparing the new report. It can be viewed at under the What's New section

The WET-initiative on Wastewater Emission Targets has been proposed by UNEP and major partners, such as WHO, WSSCC and UN-HABITAT, during the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa, 2 September 2002, as a key component of the "H2O - From Hilltops to Oceans" Type II Partnership Proposal.

The presentation of this report will take place at Aquatech 2002, in the RAI Congress Centre, Europaplein, Amsterdam, The Netherlands, on Thursday 3 October, 14:00 hrs, Room B. This presentation by Cees van de Guchte, Senior Programme Officer of the UNEP/GPA Coordination Office in The Hague/Scheveningen, The Netherlands, will be part of the closing session of the 6th International Conference on Diffuse Pollution, organized by the International Water Association (IWA) in cooperation with the Netherlands Association on Water Management (NVA) and Aquatech 2002.

The issue of Wastewater Emission Targets, and how they relate to existing Regional Seas Conventions and Protocols, will also be on the agenda at the 3rd World Water Forum to be held in Japan, March 2003.

For More Information Please Contact: Eric Falt, Spokesperson and Director of the UNEP Division of Communications and Public Information, on Tel: 254 2 623292, E-mail: or Nick Nuttall, UNEP Head of Media, on Tel: 254 2 623084, Mobile: 254 (0) 733 632755, E-mail:

UNEP News Release 2002/71


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