Mr. President, Prime Minister, Excellencies, distinguished honoured guests, ladies and gentlemen,
It is my honour today to welcome you all to the thirtieth celebration of World Environment Day, being held this year here in this beautiful city of Beirut.
This is the first time World Environment Day has been held in the Arab World.
Each year, World Environment Day is observed by the United Nations family and by communities across the globe to raise awareness of the importance of the environment to all our lives.
It is a time to reflect, not just on the challenges we face, but on the many initiatives, small and large, that people are involved in the world over to make sure that the world becomes a better, safer, more equitable place for us, our children, and their children.
Each year we choose a theme. This year the theme is “Water: Two Billion People are Dying For It”. The slogan emphasises the urgency of providing an adequate supply of water to all the people of the world.
It is a sad fact that one third of our fellow human beings face lives of disease and hardship simply because they lack access to safe water or proper sanitation—the most important elements for a healthy and productive life.
It cannot be stressed enough just how important clean water and sanitation is to human lives and development.
At the turn of this century the world signed up to a set of time-bound commitments called the Millennium Development Goals. Water and sanitation feature amongst them.
But what needs to be emphasised is that few, if any, of these goals will be achievable without making great strides in the provision of clean water for everyone, especially the poor.
This message, I know, is not lost on the people of this region, where scarcity of water, and the need for its wise use, is integral to daily life. It is appropriate, then, that this year—thanks to the generous support of the Government of Lebanon—the World Environment Day celebrations in the International Year of Freshwater are being held in the Arab World.
Although this is the first time World Environment Day has been held in this region, I am sure it will not be the last.
We could not have celebrated this most important day in the United Nations calendar here without the intervention of some very influential people.
I would therefore like to thank:
The President of Lebanon: His Excellency Mr. Emile Lahoud.
The Prime Minister of Lebanon: His Excellency Mr. Rafic Hariri.
The Head of the Lebanese Parliament: His Excellency Nabih Berri.
And the Lebanese Minister of Environment: His Excellency Mr. Fares Boueiz.
Ladies and gentlemen,
The words Beirut and Lebanon conjure up many images in many minds. To some, it is images from a glorious past—the fabled cedars of Lebanon and the trading empire of the Phoenicians. To others they are bywords for cosmopolitan sophistication—culture, cuisine and civilisation. Others recall the horror and confusion of civil war, a city and a country torn apart by strife.
It is fitting then that we are able to come here to see the truths that we all need to be reminded of in this troubled world in which we live. Wounds can heal, cities can be rebuilt, and people can come together, working for a common good.
This is a message the world needs.
It is a message that everybody concerned with preserving the world’s environment and promoting world peace needs to hear on World Environment Day. Namely that, whatever the challenges, however dark the days appear, there is light at the end of the tunnel.
Things can get better, whenever people have the will. And, perhaps even more important, when governments have the commitment.
This is also a message that UNEP has been able to broadcast throughout the years through its Global 500 awards.
This year we are proud to present eight Global 500 award winners—people or institutions who have in their own way, managed to make a difference to their environment and to how people think and behave.
Sadly, one person who cannot be here today is Annelisa Kilbourn.
Annelisa was nominated to the Global 500 roll of honour for her tireless work to preserve some of our planet’s most important, charismatic and endangered species, including the last remaining rhinos of Borneo, and the lowland gorillas of Central Africa. Tragically, she was killed late last year in a plane crash over Gabon, West Africa.
I am pleased today to be able to welcome her mother, Mrs. Johana Kilbourn, and her sister, Ms. Kirsten Kilbourn, who will accept the award on her behalf, and also her colleague, Dr. Nan Schaffer, President and Founder of SOS Rhino.
The other winners include:
1. Serge Antoine, from France, who has worked tirelessly and with considerable vision for over half a century to enhance the environment in Europe and beyond.
2. The Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association, who are bringing environmental and social justice to their country.
3. Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak, whose eco-friendly toilet is transforming the health and lives of the urban poor in India.
4. Boureima Wankoye, from Niger, whose company is delivering sustainable development in action by boosting farmers income while, at the same time, restoring degraded drylands.
5. The Women Environment Preservation Committee which is transforming waste management in the mountain kingdom of Nepal.
6. The Salle Pedagogique des Zones Arides, from Algeria, the only youth category winner this year, which is helping cut the waste of water in the Sahara.
Last but not least, is Najib Saab, who I am sure is well known to many of you. Najib, who is from Lebanon, is an internationally respected communicator about the environment. Through his magazine Al-Bia Wal-Tanmia—Environment and Development—he has almost single-handedly put the environment on the political map of the Arab world.
The achievements of Najib Saab and all the other Global 500 laureates represent stepping stones to a brighter future for us all.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Today we have recognised a broad group of people from a wide variety of backgrounds and cultures. This is what the Global 500 awards are all about. Their names will be added to a prestigious list which now totals 735 individuals and organisations, stretching back over 15 years of World Environment Day award ceremonies.
What do all these people and institutions have in common? I think one word sums it up. Hope. Usually working against the odds to counter one form of environmental degradation or another, all the Global 500 laureates have demonstrated that, if you have the will, you do not need to succumb to the forces that we see all around us. These are the forces that allow forests to dwindle, water to become polluted and people to remain poor. It is easy to lose hope. To give in to despair. The challenges can appear too great.
The Global 500 winners never gave up hope. And their actions and determination, often in the face of adversity, give us all hope, hope that all humankind can look forward to a better future based on the principles of commitment and action.
At UNEP we have a motto. Environment for Development. By recognising our common humanity, by nurturing the environment on which we all depend, we can all look forward to a prosperous and equitable future. This is the message the Global 500 laureates bring us. This is the message of UNEP. This is our message for World Environment Day.