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Workshop on Cities, Ecosystems and Biodiversity - Remarks by Achim Steiner

Speech by Achim Steiner, United Nations Under Secretary General and Executive Director of UN Environment Programme (UNEP)

Workshop on Cities, Ecosystems and Biodiversity at the Africities 4 Summit held at the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS)

Nairobi, 21 September 2006 – Ladies and gentlemen,

I would like to put the challenges before us because at the heart of the discussion at this workshop are two broad issues.

Firstly, we need to make the notion of a systems perspective become something that is not only the intellectual property of the conservation and ecology movement, but becomes central to development from an urban point of view.

It is about things that are connected even if they appear not to be. It is about one part of the system that has impacts on other parts.

IT is also looking across time, what some people describe as inter-temporal and seeing the importance of landscapes and natural resources beyond today’s apparent value.

Because what may seem today like just an area of bush, may tomorrow be the most valuable real estate on the planet.

Indeed it sometimes intrigues me that people can dismiss nature so easily in the urban setting, when the highest price you can often pay for a piece of property in any city in the world is usually right next to the green spaces of that city—just think of Central Park in New York or Hyde Park in London.

Indeed, Nairobi National Park may already be and will certainly become one of the most valuable pieces of real estate for the city and those living around it.

So looking at a systems approach is critical towards trying to re-define how cities look upon nature and how also the environmental movement looks upon cities—not as an enemy but places of huge potential.

And that is the other half of the challenge.

For far too long environmentalists have focused on only the blind, ignorant side of the urban development process rather than focusing on the power urbanization holds for ecosystem management and long term ecosystem viability.

Ladies and gentlemen, we clearly need to meet these perceptual challenges because the situation is out of balance.

Two per cent of the planet’s land surface is occupied by cities, yet they use 75 per cent of the Earth’s natural resources—this is the negative side of the equation.

However, the economies of scale possible in an urban setting in terms of providing services and in terms of their quantity and quality of these services, is immense.

Trying to provide similar levels if everyone now in cities—half the world’s population—lived in rural areas would, I suggest, be even greater cause for concern for ecosystems and biodiversity conservation.

So, I said at the outset, we have the challenge of developing a systems approach and challenges in terms of communicating this.

Communication because in the past these two sets of actors—the environmentalists on one side and urban planners on the other—have all too often failed to talk to each other.

It is a dialogue that is long over due, a dialogue that is underway as evidenced by this workshop here at the Africities 4 Summit and which we need to take further.

Ladies and gentlemen, let me dwell a little longer on the question of a systems perceptive.

It is, to me, still surprising that some people in cities do believe that water comes out of tap and that electricity comes out of a socket.

They have no notion of where the water actually came from or where the sewage goes to that leaves the city’s bathrooms, restaurants, hotels and so on.

And yet the hydrological cycle is perhaps the most easy one to use to demonstrate to citizens in urban areas how much they depend on resources outside the city.

One of the most startling example of where they realization was restored-- and how urban planners can change the approach to urban resource managements and water supplies-- is the famous Catskills example.

New York city was running out of water and it had in the pipeline a multi billon dollar programme of water sewage treatment plants.

Environmentalists, in alliance with the city, argued that there was another way.

They persuaded New York to undertake a massive refurbishment of toilets that used significantly less water when compared with the old ones.

They also successfully argued that, for just a few hundred million dollars, better management of the Catskills watershed above New York could solve the water shortage problem.

It is a living example of how a city, by investing in water sheds, has taken a systems perspective with wide ranging benefits to not just water supplies but ecosystem and biodiversity conservation and of course to New York’s economy.

Nairobi, like many cities in Africa, is facing similar challenges. Water here also does not come out of tap—but from places like the Aberdares.

How can the economic power of the people in Nairobi—around three million people now—be used to invest in the watersheds that will ultimately guarantee that water will still flow into the city of Nairobi while also generating benefits upstream?

A second example is energy. Hydro power is an option for Africa, but it is mixed blessing.

It is on one hand one of nature’s gifts in terms of electricity generation. But the way we have built dams has all too often destroyed the very basis of the natural resource.

So the fundamental question is, if hydropower is to be exploited in the future, how do we do it so that we do not compromise the traditional users of the river systems?

How do we avoid compromising communities by siphoning off so much that it destroys the fisheries, forestry and agriculture that depends on a live river.

So again, cities need to look at the systems approach so that cities are partners not parasites in the rural areas.

Take forests and timber—if you look at a city like Nairobi it lives on timber from building materials and furniture making to charcoal.

Yet the use of this timber has been one of extraction rather than sustainable harvesting that in turn would encourage investment in forestry management.

And this goes further. It is the poorest of the poor that often rely on forests on the edge of cities and further afield.

A systems approach that recognizes the interdependence offers the chance of a sustainable supply of forestry products for cities and for the poor who live in forested areas.

In doing so, and with the right government policies in place, we can go a long way towards meeting the Millennium Development Goals.

The links go further if only we can see them. Kenya airways would not be the aviation force it is today without Kenya’s national parks and wildlife tourism that bring in a critical mass of tourists.

Meanwhile, a great deal of the jobs and the economy of a city like Nairobi in terms of areas like catering and hotels, depends on the work of the Kenya Wildlife service who are hosting us today.

But how often is that connection made?

How often does the Nairobi economy look upon the work of KWS as an investment that yields enormous dividends to business, to government in terms of tax revenues and infrastructure development like roads to and from Parks.

It is a fact that we all too often struggle to explain to ministers of finance and ministers of planning, all these economic benefits of ecosystems and biodiversity conservation.

Struggle to explain that environment is not a tax on development but in fact an investment in development.

So we have to cross this bridge, not least in our cities, and close the loop so that economy and environment are no longer seen as two separate spheres.

Ladies and gentlemen, let me leave you with four thoughts on how we can all take these issues forward in practical terms.

First efficiency—reducing the urban footprint. Just because you have three million people does not mean you have to consume three million times more than if just one person were living in the same place.

We can disconnect growth from consumption and it is in cities where we have the greatest potential to do so be it water, energy, timber, transport, pollution.

This will in turn take pressure of the ecosystems that sustain cities.

Secondly—ecosystem management within the city. We often consider that ecosystems and biodiversity are beyond the fence that separates the city from the rest of the land and the rural areas.

But species can and do survive in cities and people want nature in the urban environment.

So how can we move urban development towards the deliberate creation of green belts—how can we ensure that a city like Nairobi, which I drive across every day, is a place of fulfilled potential not lost opportunities.

We have satellite images that compare Nairobi in 1976 with more recent images and you can clearly see the urban sprawl—sprawl that will leave some parts of this city without any environmental assets anymore.

But if we can get it right, the people living here in 2020 will thank you forever.

A third practical area is payment for ecosystem services-- we need to look at how cities can spend their revenues so they benefit not only the urban citizen.

But also the communities outside who provide key services by maintaining, for example, watersheds that keep the taps flowing and wildlife areas that attract tourists.

Paying these communities is the best way to trade between two worlds that have not been perceived as connected and have not been too good at talking to each other.

Finally, let me mention the biodiversity target agreed at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002 known as the 2010 target—of reserving the rate of loss of biodiversity on this planet.

I am an ambassador for the Countdown 2010 initiative. In Europe, they are beginning to take the target and ask what can a city council, a company or a citizen do to contribute to this.

So I would urge cities and citizens to ask their Minister of Environment if he or she is aware of the target.

And ask directly how Africa’s urban and city communities’ areas can play their part in a down to earth and practical way in order to achieve the3 2010 target.

I thank you.