Director-General

World Summit on Sustainable Development

Opening of Side Event on "Health and Environment in the 21st Century: Priorities and Action Strategies to Secure our Children's Future"

Johannesburg, South Africa
29 August 2002

Colleagues,

I am delighted to welcome you all to this important event. As I said in my statement to the plenary yesterday, people are at the centre of sustainable development, and their health is central to the future. Yet the world’s poorest communities are not sharing the benefits from globalization. However, we can demonstrate with confidence that investment in health pays major dividends: both as a precious asset in itself and in terms of economic development, poverty reduction and environmental protection.

A recent review of evidence by WHO shows us the importance of people's environments in determining their health. We know that environmental threats may cause up to one-third of the global burden of disease. Contaminated water and indoor air, polluting fuel, lack of sanitation and disease-bearing insects are, together, important risks to health globally. In different regions and countries the risk factors vary. We know of communities severely affected by arsenic in drinking water, by heavy metals in soil, or by combustion products in the atmosphere. We are studying long-term risks, including those associated with changes in the global climate. We also keep the possible dangers associated with ultraviolet radiation and electromagnetic radiation under scrutiny. Our risk assessment methods are evolving over time so as to meet the ever increasing demands for precise estimates, despite the limited data that are available.

Responding to these risks requires concerted action by different sectors and entities who may not normally expect to work together. Hence the value of their committing to alliances with common goals and agreed strategies, and the importance of regularly monitoring progress. Health Impact Assessments can be useful in binding alliances together, in that they involve the different groups in working together to address a common issue. Once the relationships between environmental risks and health have been understood, and different groups have agreed strategies to tackle them, we depend on robust indictors to monitor progress.

Action involves the development of policies through careful analysis of evidence. Programmes are established, and are taken forward with the participation of affected communities and in partnerships with actors that can offer resources and expertise. I hope that during this hour we will be able to draw on the expertise of our panel - and of some of the audience too - so as to find both convergence and variance in our approaches and the results that we have achieved.

Panellists have a free rein but, given where they come from and what they stand for, I can predict ways in which they will help guide our thinking. I anticipate that Carol Bellamy will consider the particular health issues faced by children living in unhealthy environments. We will hear from Klaus Töpfer how environmental policies can be influenced by health considerations. Then Ian Johnson will look at the links between degraded environments and health from and economic perspective. Kami Chetty, Carlos Santos Burgoa and David Anderson will give us a chance to examine the experiences of South Africa, Mexico and Canada in tackling different environmental health issues. Linda Fisher will describe the US EPA experience - particularly its work on indicators of environmental health. And Robert Musil will share with us his perspectives on ways in which campaigners can help influence action for healthy environments. I hope that we will have time to draw together the strands of our discussion before we leave at 14:45.

So now over to David Anderson, who has kindly agreed to moderate us - and to keep us to time.

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