United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)

Nature`s Road To Knowledge

Nature is what keeps us together; it provides us with the proteins that keep us going; with the water we need to live; with the energy, the bread and the tea we enjoyed this morning.

Your excellency Dr. Abdulaziz Bin Omar Al-Jasser, President of CAMRE,

Excellency Dr. Mohammad bin Ibrahim Al-Twayjri, Under Secretary of the League of Arab States,

Excellencies Ministers, Members of the Diplomatic Corps,

Heads of Delegations, Reps of IG, NGO, my dear colleagues from the UN

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Apparently there is a proverb written in one of the Pharaoh's temples in Karnak that reflects something already well known to my colleagues in UNEP: that 'The best and shortest road towards knowledge of truth is Nature.' The proverb may be from centuries ago, but its spirit still thrives across the region - a spirit that it's perfect to capture at such an opportune moment.

Nature is what keeps us together; it provides us with the proteins that keep us going; with the water we need to live; with the energy, the bread and the tea we enjoyed this morning. With the air we breathe every second and that we take for granted. We need Nature. Does Nature need us? No!

In governments, the departments in charge of Nature are often called Ministries of Environment and are amongst the poorest, the lowest in the hierarchy. Such is life. As we go to the souk, we buy salt much cheaper than gold. But we all know, salt has much more value!

The importance of the environmental dimensions of sustainable development has never been as clear to the general public as it is now. Look at the 17 Goals of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development: all goals have a nexus with the environment! Similarly, there is no environmental action that does not have a strong interaction with the social or the economic dimension!

As we prepare ourselves for the second session of the United Nations Environmental Assembly (UNEA-2) allow me to mark a pause. UNEA-2 will be the first global gathering on the environment since the adoption of the SDGs and after the Paris Climate COP. It is the only other universal Assembly of the UN out with the General Assembly in New York. And it is the only universal platform of the United Nations that provides political and scientific leadership on the Environment. In addition to the Ministerial forum, UNEA-2 will also have a global stakeholders' forum and a series of symposia. It will be an excellent opportunity for Governments and stakeholders who wish to organize parallel events.

'Healthy Environment, Healthy People' is the theme of the High Level Ministerial Dialogue. Whether the natural environment or the one that has been profoundly altered by human activities, the environment surrounding us shapes our lives, affects our sleep, the quality of indoor and outdoor air that we breathe; it exposes us to chemicals and various other hazards and to man-made disasters.

In going forward, the Millennium Development Goals have taught us some very practical lessons: not least, the need for a more integrated approach. More integrated in terms of the needs of public and private stakeholders; in terms of the potential synergies and conflicts around topics like the environment, poverty and secure food sources; and in terms of the potential solutions that can take us toward a more inclusive, more quotable green economy.

This approach means that the Arab states can not only benefit from an active role in securing the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, but can deliver benefits for the rest of the world at the same time.

There is no time to lose in realizing that potential. In fact, right now some 60 million people are fleeing conflict and disaster - more than at any time since the Second World War. Yet such forced displacement can actually create new problems: how can we supply clean food and water, create jobs, educate children and avoid fresh conflict when neighboring countries are suddenly faced with a sea of refugees, as we've seen with the 4 million people fleeing Syria.

This may sound more like a security or a humanitarian issue. But anyone who looks at the root causes will find out that people generally fight for access to water, to farming, forest or grazing land or to minerals. If you consider that natural resources are linked to at least 40% of intrastate conflicts in the last 60 years and to them being twice as likely to relapse within 5 years. That 93% of 40 UN peacekeeping operations in the last 30 years were to countries affected by natural disasters. That 18 violent conflicts in the last 15 years have been at least partially financed by the exploitation of natural resources. If you consider all of these, then you start to see that part migration is also an issue of the environment and the economy - of health and wellbeing. But that is just one issue. The same complexities are repeated across anything from population growth to unemployment and youth demographics, and from rapid urbanization to shortages of food, water and land.

In the Arab region such issues are being addressed through a coordinated approach from across the United Nations to work with a core set of indicators that have been approved by CAMRE and can be built on going forward; to offer member states practical support to implement, monitor and report on progress; to listen to the recommendations from events like May's successful Arab High-Level Forum on Sustainable Development in Bahrain; and to support key opportunities, like next month's Ministerial Session on implementing the goals and the forthcoming publication of the Arab Sustainable Development Report.

Land degradation and climate change are clearly among the main challenges faced by this region. UNEP has been contacted by many countries on the issue of sand and dust storms. And while sand and dust storms are a global phenomenon that also affect China and Africa, they have reached an unprecedented level in the Middle East, with severe consequences on human health and safety, on the economy (disturbing air and sea navigation) as well as on civil and military security. UNEP is preparing a global assessment on Dust and Sand Storms, which will be available at UNEA-2 in May 2016. There is only one viable solution to avoid repeated and prolonged days of dust and darkness: restoring the land and regenerating the ecosystems. There are already good restoration examples in the region, such as the green belt of Kuwait.

With regards to climate change, I would like to commend the Arab region for having submitted their climate action plans, the so-called Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs). I understand 165 countries have submitted their plans so far, including 15 members of the League or Arab States. While these submissions are remarkable, the 6th UNEP Emissions Gap Report published on 6 November has unfortunately concluded that more emission reduction efforts are needed. The INDCs are taking us to an increase of 3°C instead of the agreed maximum of 2°C. We are hopeful a good agreement will be reached at the Paris COP. The Arab region has a historic role to play in forging a meaningful agreement, in the same way it did recently at the Meeting of the Parties of the Montreal Protocol on Ozone that took place in Dubai, when countries agreed to negotiate HFCs under the Ozone protocol.

As I conclude my remarks, let me reiterate our strong interest in working with your countries and with the League of Arab States in identifying long lasting solutions to the major environmental challenges faced by this region. Major initiatives may be needed, where countries of the region would play their leadership role, supported by UNEP and others.

Let me leave you with two challenges, if I may.

The first challenge is the development of a major restoration programme, akin to the Great Green Wall of Africa or the China Loss Plateau restoration project. This will not only 'reclaim the future', but will also create jobs while restoring the health of the land and storing carbon. I believe the region has the resources and the capacity to take responsibility. UNEP, as your technical agency, stands ready to support you along with your civil society representatives and others.

And the second challenge is supporting Lebanon in managing its solid waste. UNEP, at the request of the Lebanese Government, will provide expertise and capacity building. We are also helping establish international networks, notably with European countries. While the long term solutions will depend essentially on the Lebanese Government, an urgent one-off short term response is needed to clean the roads, water points and coastal areas, and avoid a major health catastrophe that is looming. It is in such difficult moments that one needs one's brothers and sisters.

Ladies and gentlemen, as I started with an Egyptian proverb, perhaps we can get to that discussion a little quicker if I pay heed to a proverb from my own country - one which says that: 'One must talk little and listen much'!

In other words, I've said quite enough for one day and now it time for me to listen and learn - more about the great progress on 'the road to knowledge' being made by CAMRE; the possibility for an enhanced regional co-operation on (i) dust and sand storms (ii) solid waste; and the best way to involve the Arab region in building momentum for UNEA-2 and beyond.

Thank you.

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