Great strides have been taken in the West Asia region over the past two decades in the development and strengthening of environmental institutions and legislation.
Initiatives to protect the environment at the national level have depended mainly on command and control mechanisms, particularly legislation. The main avenues for the implementation of environmental policy in the region have been national institutions co-ordinating environmental management and enforcing laws (e.g., Ministries, General Directorates and the Environment Protection Councils or Secretariats) and the setting of standards and norms through legislation.
Recent socio-economic changes have also brought policy changes that had environmental implications. Unprecedented urban and industrial growth in the region, particularly in the Gulf States, has resulted in increased demand for natural resources and rates of waste generation (both domestic and industrial). In addition, structural adjustment programmes have led the governments of some countries in the region to suspend many government-supported activities, including environmental planning.
In addition, the hostilities in the region over the last two decades have caused large population migrations towards marginal land and water resources. This, along with the lack of adequate waste disposal and/or treatment, has also posed a serious threat to the environment and human health in the region.
All countries of the region now have environmental institutions or ministries in place, with many countries having restructured these institutions in the recent past. (See Table 3.3.) In some countries the newly established or restructured institutions were given higher political standing. At present four countries have ministers for environment in their cabinets, namely Oman (Ministry of Regional Municipalities and Environment), Jordan (Ministry of Municipal and Rural Affairs and Environment), Bahrain (Ministry of Housing, Municipalities and Environment), and Syria (Minister of State for the Environment heading the General Commission for Environmental Affairs).
Of these countries, Oman was the first to establish a Ministry for Environment and Water in 1984. This Ministry, along with the Council for Conservation of the Environment and Prevention of Pollution were then merged into a new Ministry of Regional Municipalities and Environment in 1991. The Syrian Government created a Ministry of State for Environmental Affairs to act as the advisory body for co-ordinating environmental issues between the Ministries, setting environmental standards, carrying out environmental studies, monitoring pollution, and developing environmental guidelines.
Most other countries of the region have also established environmental institutions, although not necessarily at Cabinet levels. General Directorates for environment or similar governmental bodies were established in Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. Environmental Protection Councils have been replaced by Environmental Authorities at the General Directorate level in Bahrain and Kuwait.
The United Arab Emirates issued a federal law in 1993 creating the Federal Environment Agency, which is the first country-wide institution with legal powers to protect and conserve the environment (UNEP, 1995). Recently, the West Bank and Gaza Authority also established a central institution for environmental management and introduced legislation for resource protection.
In Lebanon, the Ministry of Environment was established in 1993. Saudi Arabia established the Meteorology and Environmental Protection Administration (MEPA) by Royal Decree in 1981. MEPA is now the central agency responsible for environment at the national level. Saudi Arabia has also established environmental sections in other relevant ministries, namely, in the Ministry of Agriculture and Water, the Ministry of Petroleum and Mineral Resources, the Ministry of Municipalities and Rural Affairs, the Ministry of Industry and Electricity, and the Ministry of Health. Some countries in the region have also created separate bodies to deal with specific environmental sectors (for example, the national committees and commissions for wildlife conservation and development in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Oman, Jordan, Kuwait, and Syria).
Despite the plethora of new institutions, however, programmes, laws, and institutions have often been created haphazardly and are generally sectoral. In most countries, different institutions are responsible for agriculture, water, fisheries, mineral resources, development, human settlements, industry, transport, and tourism.
Recent recognition of the inter-sectoral nature of many environmental concerns has led to an increasing number of Governments developing cross-cutting policy institutions. These commonly take the form of inter-ministerial or interdepartmental committees, and national environmental strategies developed with sectoral departments.
Only a few Governments, however, have created high-level, cross-cutting bodies under the direct control of the Head of Government (in Oman, for instance) or a senior minister (ESCWA, 1996). Due to this weakness in organizational structure, as well as shortcomings of the consultative machinery, there has been a lack of national integrated environmental policy in some countries. Furthermore, environmental departments almost everywhere have limited staff and budgets in relation to the demands made on them. There is therefore a lack of resources for implementing agreed policy or enforcement of law (ESCWA, 1996).
The countries in West Asia have passed numerous laws dealing with the environment. In Kuwait, as early as 1964, the first law was passed to protect navigable water from oil pollution. Articles 15, 16, and 21 of the constitution of Kuwait were subsequently amended in 1976 and in 1980 to incorporate environmental protection principles and to establish mechanisms to enforce the implementation of environmental laws.
Despite the often fragmented nature of organizational responsibilities for the environment, legislation in the region has been fairly cross-sectoral and all-encompassing since the 1980s. These laws, sometimes known as framework laws, have helped countries reorder fragmented approaches to environmental management.
Framework laws in the region include:
The enforcement of existing laws is critical for the protection of the region's environment. Many states have imposed new types of liability or increased penalties for environmental offences in order to secure better environmental quality. In Bahrain, for example, any person found guilty of causing oil pollution in the marine environment or of dumping in territorial waters wastes from ships or land-based sources is liable to large fines. Violators are also responsible for the cleanup of the contaminated area within a specific time (UNEP, 1995).
Although most countries of the region have adequate legislation, there remains a need for revision, amendment, and the introduction of new legislation. Norms, standards, and monitoring are generally inadequate, and most countries and the region require assistance to remedy the situation and put into place effective enforcement mechanisms (UNEP, 1995).
West Asian countries have made substantial efforts at the national level to integrate environmental dimensions into their development schemes and strategies. While prior to the 1990s these plans simply concentrated on development strategies, some countries now incorporate environmental policies and resource management principles. However, while most countries have developed strategies and action plans, they continue to lack adequate resources for their implementation.
In Jordan's five-year development plan for 1986-90, the environment appeared for the first time as an independent sector. In addition, in 1996 a National Environment Action Plan was formulated for the Kingdom. Oman also has a comprehensive environmental planning and management system that ensures that development takes into account environmental concerns.
With desertification being a major concern in the region, countries have responded by launching national action plans to combat desertification. Their main elements include assessment of desertification and improved land management, public corrective measures against droughts and their impacts, institutional arrangements for building the capacity of personnel, and international co-operation. The National Action Plan for Combating Desertification in Bahrain, for instance, emphasizes appropriate land management practices, water management measures, strengthening of science and technology, and international action and co-operation.
Similarly, because water issues are a major concern, several national action plans have been initiated and implemented. For example, in Oman, the Government has started several regional activities to conserve and protect water resources from pollution and to increase public awareness of such pressing environmental issues as the scarcity of water resources and the importance of protecting biodiversity. In Kuwait, a water quality monitoring programme was established in 1986 in parallel with an air quality monitoring programme. Sea water quality monitoring sites have been established in the coastal areas, especially around desalination plants. A monthly monitoring programme of drinking-water quality is implemented in accordance with World Health Organization (WHO) drinking-water monitoring guidelines. The countries of the East Mediterranean region, such as Lebanon and Syria, have begun to elaborate integrated coastal management programmes and regional environmental assessment initiatives, in line with environmental assessment initiatives and priorities in their respective countries.
Syria has initiated the preparation of background papers on the environmental situation at all seven national river basins to be used to compile a sustainable development strategy and to develop relevant action plans required to respond to the identified needs and priorities. The papers are being prepared through an interactive participatory approach involving various governmental, academic, and research institutions, as well as local authorities and groups. The environmental effects of industrial, agricultural, and domestic activities, as well as socio-economic issues, are assessed in these papers.
To help combat the pressures on the region's biodiversity, particularly due to habitat destruction, some countries of the region have begun to establish protected areas. Protected areas now total over 24 million hectares, some 6 per cent of the total area of the West Asia region (ESCWA/FAO, 1995). (See Table 3.4.)
Various economic instruments are also in use in the region to help promote sustainable development. In Bahrain, Oman, UAE, and Kuwait, for example, soft loans are available for introducing water-saving irrigation techniques (e.g., drip irrigation) to relieve some of the pressure on groundwater resources. Some countries have also implemented programmes to promote intensive protected agriculture (e.g., greenhouses) in order to help improve water productivity.
Instruments using the polluter pays principle also exist in the region. In Syria, for example, a municipal service operation levy has been introduced for domestic and private institutions with regard to the collection of solid wastes. These rates differ according to quantities of waste generated and collected. In Lebanon, preparations are underway to introduce economic tools, such as taxation and incentives, for air pollution management. These tools will be integrated within the action plan and legislation for air pollution.
A growing number of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are found in most countries of the region. However, their role in planning and implementation needs to be strengthened. In addition, there is a need for capacity building to increase the involvement of NGOs as well as other institutions and the private sector in the environmental policy-making and action cycle. Although in most countries initiatives for capacity building are in place, these need to be turned into reality (UNEP, 1996). The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has initiated various programmes in the region for environmental management that are more specifically addressing capacity building issues in the context of UNDP's Capacity 21 efforts. The UNDP Regional Bureau for Arab States has assisted in the initiation of projects funded by the Global Environment Facility, with strong capacity building components in the areas of biodiversity, climate change, and international waters.
Environmental technology transfer is still at a limited level in the region. Some initiatives, however, are in existence. One initiative is to circulate successful examples of environmental technologies by the Council of Arab Ministers Responsible for Environment (CAMRE). Adequate technology transfer should be considered in parallel with the development of improved capacities and human resources.
A recent survey of tertiary-level environmental training institutions in the West Asia region revealed that more than 35 university research and training institutions are engaged in environmental training programmes. Collectively, these institutions teach more than 290 regular undergraduate and graduate environment courses as well as providing training courses and seminars. Graduate studies of environmental issues are available at 12 universities in the region. Courses on environment have also been incorporated into the teaching programmes of schools in most countries of the region (UNEP/ ROWA, 1994).
There is a general lack of data and information on the environment in West Asia. Where information is available in the region, there is a lack of continuity and cohesion in the environmental monitoring and reporting. Much of the information produced is also under-utilized (UNEP, 1996).
At the national level, some countries have prepared state of the environment reports (SOE) or environmental profiles of some form. Kuwait, for example, has completed four SOE-type reports (1984, 1986, 1988, and 1992) (Environment Protection Council, 1992). Most of the countries of the region have not regularly published such reports.
Specific environmental reports dealing with certain environmental issues are also available in some countries. For example, reports on desertification and plans of action to combat desertification have been prepared in Oman, Bahrain, UAE, Jordan, Syria and Yemen. These reports also include some information on the state of environment in the respective countries.
Another common problem in the region is that environmental data are scattered among numerous public and private-sector institutions, with little or no collaboration or co-ordination. As a result, there are gaps and duplication in data and the countries of the region need to compile and standardize their information (Olivier and Tell, 1995).
There is also little networking and integration of data for environmental assessment, except occasionally at the sectoral level, such as for water. Initiatives for the development of information for problem solving and networking have been undertaken in Syria and Lebanon, largely due to UNDP's Sustainable Development Network and Capacity 21 Projects. Nevertheless, effective environment information networks for the dissemination of data nationally and regionally still need to be put in place in much of the region (Olivier and Tell, 1995).