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Achim Steiner Addresses Africities Summit

Speech by Achim Steiner, United Nations Under-Secretary General and Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) to the Africities 4 Summit

Nairobi, 18 September 2006 - Your worships, honorable mayors of Africa and other regions, dear panels members and presenters, members of the United Nations family, ladies and gentlemen, local authorities, NGOs and the private sector,

It is a great honor for me to kick off the very challenging topic of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) as they relate to ensuring environmental sustainability.

These are three simple words written in the Goals but not easy ones when you consider the challenges each one of you actually face every day here on this extraordinary Continent.

A Continent that I know after having lived for some time in southern Africa and now here in Nairobi, in east Africa.

MDG 7, the issue before us today, has three selected targets. The first is”

to integrate the principles of sustainable development into country policies and programmes; and to reverse the loss of environmental resources”.

Secondly, “to reduce by half the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water”.

And third, “to achieve significant improvement in the lives of at least 100 million slum dwellers by 2020”.

In some ways these targets do not sound that difficult. Mainstreaming environmental sustainability in country planning is something we have all been working on for many years.

There are tonnes of reports, documents and strategies and action plans relating to this.

To reduce by half the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water does also not seem that difficult and we have seen countries achieve this target sometimes in quite short periods of time.

And to achieve a significant improvement in the lives of at least 100 million slum dwellers. How difficult is that in the remaining period of 14 years?

One thing I would like to address is that, in the context of Africa’s development, the environmental dimension to development particularly as it relates to poverty is one that we tend to associate with the rural areas.

When in reality, the environmental dimension is even more dramatic when we look at the urban context.

It is in the cities where people are dying of respiratory diseases. It is in cities, like here in Nairobi, where people still do not have access to safe drinking water let alone sanitation.

And where the conditions under which people live are still deteriorating and the numbers are escalating by the day and by the month.

One of the sad ironies is that when we talk about sustainable development and poverty alleviation, we have for a long time considered it simply a mater of infrastructure and services provision.

It is in some respects. But when you look at the current rates of urbanization and the absolute numbers living in poverty our investments have hardly made a dent in the appalling conditions under which far too many live.

We sit here in the Kenyatta International Conference Centre, which has been here for many years in Nairobi-- it is proof that with political will and economic resources, anything is possible anywhere on this Continent.

But as you all know, you only need to drive five miles down the road and you will face the exact antithesis of everything we see here functioning and working.

We co-exist in cities with extremes of poverty and wealth which breed contempt for one and other—and contempt is a very, very destructive force not only in terms of being able to bring about development.

But it grows the other cancer that blights so many of out cities today—that of crime, of violence and of rape and a range of other factors that we are all too sadly familiar.

Ladies and gentlemen, when we talk about environmental sustainability and cities, we have to ask why it is in the 21st century that we cannot provide the basic environment that, for those in the slums, could be described as an improvement in their living conditions.

For when we look at how people live in slums today, it bears no comparison to the lives they may have led when living in rural poverty.

I think that one way forward is to recognize that in the urban setting the rich and the poor must see that they are allies.

Sustainable Transport

Take transport. No one can escape the daily traffic problems in a city like Nairobi.

A journey that can take you 15 minutes on a Sunday can take hours on a week day because of unrelenting congestion.

You see thousands, often under difficult conditions, trying to walk or cycle to work without pavements and without cycle lanes.

Yet the very same people forced to walk or bike actually share the very same fate as those of us who sit in their Mercedes, Toyotas and other vehicles.

For like the people forced to walk or who dare to cycle, they are also forced to waste hours every day—in their case stuck in traffic jams.

So when we talk about environmental and urban planning, it is not a rich versus poor issue, not a question of those who can afford motorized transport versus those who cannot even afford a bicycle.

You are actually talking about a major loss to the productive capacity of the economy affecting all segments of society.

So dealing with urban transport issues is an economic, a social and an environmental priority.

Yet across large parts of Africa, we have not been able to make the connections between these three factors.

It explains why, when environmentalists argue for the maintenance of green spaces or urban transport, they are often viewed as obstructing economic development—when in fact they are acting in everyone’s interests.

If you take the urban transport phenomena right across Africa, it is essentially killing people, killing the economy and killing the social fabric of cities.

City centres are literally dying from within outwards as people and business flee crime, flee pollution and become unwitting agents of urban sprawl and the steady loss of productive land.

The cumulative impact of not acting to deliver an integrated approach on transport thus has a cost far higher than is understood by those sitting, angry and annoyed, in yet another traffic jam.

So achieving environmental sustainability through improved transport policies is not pitching the environment against the economy or the poor against the rich.

It is a currently a missed opportunity to deliver a new and better urban future.

Ladies and gentlemen, most of you are probably already at the limits or surpassed the limits of urban mobility.

The real sad part is that we have solid examples that prove it can be done differently.

I cite one. Curitiba in Brazil, which I was fortunate to visit earlier in the year.

Here very simple measures have been taken such as urban bus lanes, secure and attractive buses, closing lanes to private cars at certain times of the day and creating bus stops not only in the rich but also the poor areas.

In other words Curitiba is making public transport a counterpoint to the individualized, private car which is clogging up our urban environments.


The second area is water. It seems incomprehensible that many slum areas, which are not a stone’s throw from the water mains of city centres, are home to people who are forced to take they daily water needs from the most polluted, sewage-laden, streams you can imagine.

And it is an irony that so many slum dwellers are, if they can afford it, forced to pay 10 up to 50 times more than those living up the road in middle and upper class areas.

This is an economic, environmental and social indictment of development but one which I am sure we can overcome if we join forces and understand the wider context of water supply.

For one thing is clear, water supplies are a key example of the connectivity between urban and rural areas.

Water must come from somewhere, and sewage must go somewhere.

We still do not see that those who live in rural areas, who manage the water sheds, should be compensated for maintaining the urban water supplies.

Water is not something that comes out of tap. It comes from the melting of glaciers, from forests and other ecosystems.

And if we do not understand that now and do not encourage the sustainable management of these water producing, natural systems then the problems will only get worse.

For if the predictions of climate change come true and we do not prize even more the sources of freshwater, then those who are responsible for supplying water to Africa’s cities (and energy) will all have to go back to the drawing boards.


Another issue is waste. So often it is left to nature to deal with. And nature can handle quite a lot of waste but only if we maintain nature’s services.

I was recently in Kampala and was struck by how sustainability can bring different responses.

Much of the urban run off of that city ends up running through a small urban wetland.

Faced with growing concern that urban run off was affecting the city’s water supplies, the question was asked as to whether a water sewage treatment works was needed.

And for many, many millions of dollars that was the preferred solution despite costing also hundreds of thousands of dollars to run.

Yet what was overlooked was that the some 50 hectares of wetland were acting as a natural filter and if only the encroachment of urbanization and informal agriculture could be stopped, then a sewage treatment plant would not be necessary.

This is just one example how urban planners, ecologists and water engineers need to re-think the approach to urban infrastructures, services, supplies and development.

We have many win, win, situations if only we can take an integrated approach.

So at the heart of what I want to say is at the heart of MDG 7 is not an environmentalists’ agenda within the MDGs—but that achieving MDG7 is an important precondition for achieving all the other MDGs.

Ladies and gentlemen, some urban centres are seeing a radical turnaround and putting the brake on urban sprawl.

Take Johannesburg in South Africa where re-development and reclaiming the centre for its citizens has become an explicit development goal.

Remarkably it has not taken a decade to achieve this. Indeed it is only in a matter of a few years that banks, business and private individuals have begun to re-invest in the city centre and reclaim the streets from squalor and crime and poverty.

So to my mind MDG-7 is not a luxury but at the centre of your Africities 4 Summit—it is the basis for achieving sustainable development, for bringing dignity and health and an renaissance for all Africa’s urban citizens.




Further Resources

Africities Summit 2006
Official Website

UNEP Regional Office for Africa

Millennium Development Goals (MDGs)

Poverty and the Environment

Africa Environment Outlook
Launch page

UNEP Resources on Freshwater

Africa’s Natural Wealth Key to Economic Prospects
UNEP Press Release

UNEP Resources on Urban Issues

Partnership for Cleaner Fuels and Vehicles


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