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Urgent action needed to protect the marine environment

New York, 20 November 2001 - The negative effects of land-based activities on seas and coasts are growing both in scale and type, and are increasingly damaging the environment, scientists are warning.

In a report, produced as a contribution to a United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) meeting of environment ministers in Montreal next week, the world's leading marine scientists call for "urgent action" to address the most serious problems associated with land-based activities.

With a warning that, "the economic costs of failing to take action to control land based activities are enormous," they single out sewage, the physical alteration and destruction of habitat, excessive nutrient inputs and changes in sediment flows, as top priorities for action.

The scientists' say that the root causes of the marine environmental damage are poverty, poorly managed social and economic development, and unsustainable consumption patterns.

The report, "Protecting the Oceans from Land-based Activities" was jointly produced by GESAMP, the United Nations sponsored Joint Group of Experts on the Scientific Aspects of Marine Environmental Protection. It was initiated by UNEP as an input to the first intergovernmental review meeting of the Global Programme of Action for the Protection of the Marine Environment from Land-based Activities (GPA). The meeting, which will bring together senior representatives from over 100 governments, (including ministers), various international organizations, global and regional non-governmental groups, and the private sector, runs from 26-30 November in Montreal.

"The oceans cover 71 per cent of our planet's surface, regulate its climate, and provide its ultimate waste disposal system. And, yet, our species continues to treat them as our common sewer," said Klaus Toepfer, UNEP's Executive Director.

"Marine and coastal ecosystems are of vital importance to human well-being. Their value has been estimated at around US$13 trillion. This is equal to one half of annual global GNP," Toepfer continued. "Yet, we continue to treat coasts and oceans as if they were not an important economic resource for developing and developed countries alike," he said.

In Washington D.C. in November 1995, 108 Governments and the European Commission committed themselves to protect and preserve the coastal and marine environment by adopting GPA. The GPA called on countries to develop programmes of action to protect human health and the environment. More specifically, it called for action to prevent, reduce and control land-based activities that contribute to the degradation of the marine environment, such as sewage, heavy metals, persistent organic pollutants, radioactive substances, oils/hydro-carbons, litter, nutrients, sediment and habitat destruction.

Six years after the Washington conference the first "inter-governmental" review meeting of the GPA will assess the progress made by these countries, as well as launching new initiatives and action on these complex issues. This UNEP meeting will be co-hosted by Environment Canada, and Fisheries and Oceans Canada. There will be an official opening at 10 a.m. on Monday 26 November 2001. A high-level "ministerial" segment is scheduled for 29 and 30 November.

"Almost all, some 80 percent, of the environmental problems of the oceans start on land," said Klaus Toepfer. "It is here that most of the pollution originates, whether from factories and sewage works at the coast, from fertliser or pesticides washed into rivers and down to the sea, or from chemicals emitted from car exhausts and industry and carried by the winds far out to the oceans."

The GPA has been singled out sewage as a "priority pollutant" for action. Many studies show that diseases and infections among bathers rise steadily in step with the amount of sewage in the water. They demonstrate also that bathers are at risk even in lightly contaminated waters that meet the pollution standards laid down by the European Union and the US Environmental Protection Agency. A recent World Health Organisation study (referenced in the GESAMP report below) has estimated that one in every 20 bathers in "acceptable waters" will become ill after venturing just once into the sea.

"Sewage ruins large areas for fisheries, recreation and tourism, causing major economic loss," said Toepfer. "It also poses considerable risk to the health of bathers and consumers of marine foodstuffs. Outbreaks of cholera, typhoid and hepatitis are frequently traced to pathogen-contaminated seafood and bathing waters," he said.

According to the GESAMP report eating sewage-contaminated shellfish raw causes some 2.5 million cases of infectious hepatitis each year. This results in 25,000 fatalities and the same number of long-term disabilities due to liver damage, all of which amounts to the loss of 3.2 million productive work years, or an economic impact of some $10 billion annually.

In Montreal, Ministers and other senior government officials will review an action plan on sewage. Known as the Strategic Action Plan on Municipal Wastewater, it might serve as a model for other key pollutants. They will also get a progress report on the GPA and decide on a work programme for the years ahead. The outcomes of the Montreal meeting will also feed into important upcoming events such as the International Conference on Freshwater in Bonn and the World Summit on Sustainable Development in South Africa in September 2002.

For more information about the Montreal meeting: http://www.gpa.unep.org/igr

For press backgrounder - some key issues - go to http://www.gpa.unep.org/igr/media.htm

Contact: Robert Bisset, (in Montreal from 23 November)

UNEP Press Officer, Mobile: +33-6-2272-5842, Email: robert.bisset@unep.fr

In Canada, contact:

Shannon Sheil, Communications and Media Relations Manager

Environment Canada and Fisheries and Oceans Canada

Cellular: 1 613 276-3227, Fax: 1 819 953-0913, Email: ssheil@cyberus.ca

Note to Editors

The 2001 GESAMP report 71, "Protecting the Oceans from Land-based Activities" is available on-line (in PDF format) at http://www.gpa.unep.org/documents/default.htm

Meeting Location

The meeting will be held on the premises of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO),

999 University Street, Montreal, Canada. Tel: + 1 (514) 954-8219, Fax: + 1 (514) 954-6402

Press room

The media facilities at the GPA IGR will include: interview rooms, access to telephones, electrical outlets and printed materials for use by accredited media representatives. A listing of local television broadcasters that can be used (at a cost) by international media to edit film and/or to send broadcast footage to locations outside of Canada will also be available. In addition, media feed boxes will be located in media briefing and press conference areas for your convenience.

The meeting will be coverage by the IISD Earth Negotiations Bulletin. http://www.iisd.ca/

Registration and accreditation

To attend the meeting, please fax your completed Registration and Accreditation Form to 1 819 953-0913 before November 22, 2001. Registration is also possible in Montreal. Forms are available from Shannon Sheil (contacts above) and are accessible online at http://www.gpa.unep.org/igr/media.htm

UNEP PR: IGRPA1-16/11/01