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Closing Remarks: Seminar on Avian Influenza, the Environment and Migratory Birds

Closing remarks by Shafqat Kakakhel

Officer in Charge and Deputy Executive Director of UNEP

Seminar on Avian Influenza, the Environment and Migratory Birds,
10-11 April 2006, Nairobi

Dear colleagues,

Environmental change and the emergence, or re-emergence, of infectious diseases is one of the major issues for human society in the twenty-first century.

It is becoming increasingly clear that a healthy well-managed environment is essential for human well-being and buffers us from infectious disease.

A degraded or badly managed environment is exposing us to new diseases that are a threat to lives and livelihoods around the world.

We are now confronted with a highly virulent form of avian influenza because of this.

Just before he retired, Klaus Toepfer wrote to all governments drawing their attention to the environmental dimension of H5N1 and to publicise resolutions at recent conferences of four wildlife related treaties.

Unfortunately this advice is not being universally accepted as we have heard at the seminar.

I have just returned from a meeting of senior executive officers of the UN system where we discussed the UN system’s response to this threat.

I understand that the forthcoming meeting of the Economic and Social Council will also discuss the UN system’s response to avian flu, and that it will be on the agenda of G-8 Summit in Russia, together with other infectious diseases.

This two day seminar is an important contribution to these efforts.

I would like to express my thanks to the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS) and the related African Eurasian Waterbird Agreement for convening this expert seminar.

I have been briefed on the major outcomes and recommendations. May I thank all participants for giving their time and expertise.

We must to consider what steps need to be taken.

What can we do on the environmental front to complement the vital work of the World Health Organization (WHO),the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) and the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE).

Blaming avian flu on bird migrations is misleading. And a ‘quick fix’ of culling migratory birds is certainly not the solution.

Traditional methods of control including culling of infected poultry, vaccination and trade restrictions may at considerable expense contain the virus and reduce economic and human consequences.

But the truth is that unless we work to re-establish a proper balance between the human-made world and nature we will see similar viruses and other infectious agents emerge again and again.

By investing in wetland conservation and rehabilitation, for instance, countries can help keep migratory species away from farmland, as well as glean the many other benefits, such as water storage and purification, that such intact ecosystems offer to human society.

This will also help meet some of the key biodiversity targets for 2010 set by the World Summit on Sustainable Development and the Convention on Biological Diversity.

It is also important to know when and where migratory birds are coming. This is especially important for developing countries, who have the least resilience and perhaps the most to lose – sometimes in unexpected ways.

For example, last month experts at the Convention on Biological Diversity revealed data on how extensive culling of chickens in some countries in Africa is exacerbating the problem of bushmeat, with all the ecosystem implications that entails.

Two months ago, UNEP agreed to provide pump priming money to establish a new early warning system for countries who need to know the movements of migratory species.

Support from UNEP and CMS has helped in developing the early warning systems being developed by Wetlands International with major funding from the European Commission.

We obviously cannot do this alone. Partners from throughout the UN system, including specialized agencies, such as OIE, FAO and WHO, the biodiversity-related conventions and the NGOs need to work even more closely together.

An integrated early warning system of equal value to human health and developing countries’ farming and conservation interests is within our grasp.

I hope the scientific task force can bring this to fruition within three months.

In summing up, it is plain that this disease outbreak is, in many ways, a threat of our own making.

UNEP will continue to help the world to understand and manage the risks associated with avian influenza, and ensure that the voice of conservation science is clearly heard.

Only by maintaining healthy environments -- with humans as an integral component -- can we reduce the adverse impacts and minimize the occurrence of such threats.

Only by rehabilitating degraded environments can we hope to meet the targets and timetables of the internationally agreed Millennium Development Goals on water and sanitation, on improving the lives of women and children, and fighting the spread of disease, which is our main topic here.

The future may bring a different disease, involving different species, but it will certainly happen again and again until the international community addresses the root causes of environmental degradation.

Resources are important. $1.9 billion was pledged at the Beijing conference in January where I led the UNEP delegation.

Some of that needs to go to developing an integrated early warning system.

We have established a strong platform via this and other recent workshops and seminars.

It is essential that the results of this seminar are widely publicised and followed up.

You can be assured that UNEP will do it bit and I would urge everyone here to do the same.

Thank you very much.