Address by Achim Steiner at the Signing of the Strategic Cooperation Agreement Between the Government of Iraq and UNEP

The agreement will provide a framework for long term collaboration to address priority environmental issues in the context of sustainable national development.

UN Under-Secretary-General and UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner was received by the Iraqi Minister of Environment Eng. Sargon Slewa
Your Excellency Dr Nouri Al Maliki. The Prime Minister of Iraq,

Your Excellency Eng. Sargon Lazar Slewa, The Minister of Environment,

Your Excellency Mr. Nickolay Mladenov, The Special Representative of the UN Secretary General to Iraq,

Excellencies, Ministers, Representatives of the Diplomatic and Donor Communities,

Colleagues from the UN family,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Asslamo Alaykum and Good morning,

I would like to start by expressing my sincere gratitude to the Government of Iraq - especially Prime Minister Al Maliki and Minister Slewa - for generously extending their invitation to me to visit Iraq: the cradle of human civilization and the land of rich and diverse natural heritage; from the flowing waters of the Tigris and Euphirates to the Mesopotamian Plains and the Zagros Mountains.

It was here that the world's first writing system and first ever recorded history were born, well over seven centuries ago.

It is a privilege to be here today as Iraq takes confident steps towards charting a future development path built on the foundations of sustainability, green economic growth and building environmental resilience.

I would like to congratulate the Prime Minister, the Minister of Environment and the People of Iraq for the inauguration of the Year of Environment in Iraq.

It is a pioneering initiative that I hope will inspire and catalyze environmental action both in Iraq and the region.

It is becoming that, on this occasion, the Government of Iraq and UNEP should sign their first Strategic Cooperation Agreement.

The agreement will provide a framework for long term collaboration to address priority environmental issues in the context of sustainable national development.

Our joint work will cover areas that are vital to the integration of the environmental dimension in socio-economic development.

Areas of cooperation will focus on: Environmental legislation and regulations; assessments; biodiversity conservation; ecosystems management; combating dust storms both at the national and regional levels, green economy and economic valuation; cleaner production and resource efficiency; and climate change reporting, mitigation and adaptation, among other things.

In implementing the Strategic Cooperation Agreement, the government and UNEP will work closely with sister UN agencies, the donor community, civil society and stakeholders to ensure we build synergies, promote collaboration and strengthen capacity for long-term benefit.

In addition to this landmark agreement, UNEP is proud to continue its collaboration with the Government of Iraq on a number of other projects, with co-funding from the Global Environment Facility (GEF), UNDP, the Montreal Protocol and the Government's own budget.

Cooperation between the Government of Iraq and UNEP dates back to 2003, immediately after the establishment of the Ministry of Environment.

Since then, UNEP has worked with the Iraqi Government on multiple projects, including: rapid post-conflict environmental assessments; environmental clean-up of highly contaminated sites; and the restoration of the Mesopotamian Marshlands.

A landmark product of this collaboration is the National Environment Strategy and Action Plan for Iraq, which was approved by the Cabinet in February 2013 and launched in this very venue in June 2013.

The commitment of the Government of Iraq towards environmental sustainability is clearly articulated in the vision, goals and objectives of the National Development Plan, which places the Green Economy at the heart of development and economic policies.

Excellencies, Colleagues, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Achieving sustainable development is by no means a light undertaking - especially after decades of wars, sanctions and environmental degradation.

The State of Environment and Outlook report - prepared by the Iraqi Government with support from UNEP and UNDP - outlines the magnitude of environmental deterioration, analyzes its impact and recommends corrective action in the context of sustainable development and poverty alleviation.

Environmental degradation is caused by multiple drivers: including population growth, urbanization, desertification, human activity, poor environmental awareness, conflict and political instability.

For example:

  • Population growth is adding mounting pressure to existing food, water and energy resources. By 2030, the population is expected to grow to almost 50 million people, exasperating these pressures even further.
  • Around 31 per cent of Iraq's surface is desert. At the same time, 39 per cent of the country's surface is estimated to have been affected by desertification, with an additional 54 per cent under threat.
  • As a result of declining soil moisture and lack of vegetative cover, recent years have witnessed an increase in the frequency of vast dust and sand storms, often originating in the north western parts of Iraq.

According to the report, as well as UN and World Bank data :

  • From 5 to 8 per cent of GDP is lost annually as a result of environmental degradation;
  • Around 39 per cent of Iraq's agricultural land suffered a reduction in cropland between 2007 and 2009 - at a time when food insecurity is between 2 to 16 percent;
  • Availability of water for agriculture, industry and household supplies continues to be a challenge. The quality and quantity of the country's water has been impacted by upstream damming, pollution, climate change and inefficient usage;
  • The amount of water available per person per year decreased from 5,900 cubic metres to 2,400 cubic metres between 1977 and 2009;
  • Decreasing water supplies were exacerbated by drought from 2005 and 2009;
  • The Tigris and the Euphrates, Iraq's two major surface water sources, may dry up by 2040 if current conditions prevail;
  • Sustainable access to safe water and sanitation remain a challenge: 83 per cent of Iraq's wastewater is left untreated, contributing to the pollution of Iraq's waterways and general environment;
  • Years of conflict and violence resulted in chemical pollution and unexploded ordnances, which is affecting the safety and lives of an estimated 1.6 million Iraqis;

We hope that the implementation of the new Strategic Cooperation Agreement with UNEP will strengthen efforts to overcome many of these challenges and create opportunities.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

As the world sets the building blocks for a post-2015 sustainable development agenda, there is abundant evidence that Earth's Systems are changing; moving us closer to alarming thresholds.

To achieve a safe and just operating space for human development - which does not come at the expense of the Earth's resources - we will need to develop a new narrative. Building environmental resilience, supported by green economy infrastructure, is at the heart of this narrative.

We will also need to move towards a new development model that goes beyond GDP as a measure for human development; one that considers natural and social capital in relation to poverty alleviation, food security, and the consumption of energy and natural resources.

To conclude, I would like to once again thank the Government for it warm invitation and its continued collaboration with UNEP and the UN family.

I thank you all for your attention and I look forward to signing the Strategic Cooperation Agreement, as yet another step in the right direction towards making sustainable development a reality in Iraq.

Shukran Jazeelan (Thank you).

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