Tuesday, May 30, 2006

World Environment Day

Ask any schoolchild when Earth Day is, and they'll likely give you the right answer. Ask them the same question about World Environment Day, and you'll probably get a blank stare in return. In fairness to the kids, it's really not their fault. Despite the fact that World Environment Day was established by the United Nations back in 1972, it's largely a non-event in Canada. I suspect that is this because many of the functions and celebrations of the United Nations are often focused on need - something few Canadians know anything about. Programs like World Environment Day, World AIDS Day and other UN programs don't even enter our radar because we live in a land of such bounty and privilege.

Perhaps it's time for a brief history lesson. The United Nations General Assembly established June 5 as World Environment Day in 1972 to mark the opening of the Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment. On the same day the UN General Assembly passed another resolution that led to the creation of the United Nations Environment Programme (or UNEP), arguably the most important vehicle we have for dealing with global environmental problems.

According to the UN, the purpose of World Environment Day is to stimulate worldwide awareness of the environment and enhance political attention and action. The 2006 theme, Deserts and Desertification, was chosen because on the UN calendar, 2006 is also the International Year of Deserts and Desertification. (Bet you didn't know that, either - I sure didn't.)

With predictions that catastrophic climate change might be just around the corner, this year's theme couldn't be more timely - particularly for Canadians. Alberta and Saskatchewan are already suffering through record drought conditions and much of southern Alberta has been engulfed in uncontrolled forest fires for weeks. If this keeps up, Canada's breadbasket may soon become part of the vast drylands of the Earth, which already cover more than 40 percent of planet's surface.

What I find astonishing is that these arid lands are already home to more than two billion people, or one-third of the world's population, most of whom are the most vulnerable members of the family of man.

"For most dryland dwellers, life is hard and the future often precarious," said UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. "They live on the ecological, economic and social margins. It is essential that we do not neglect them or the fragile habitats on which they depend."

It may already be to late. With human activity already altering the climate at an unprecedented rate, many of these arid regions are becoming the world's political hotspots. Civil wars are raging in many countries where fundamental resources such as food and water are scarce.

"Across the planet, poverty, unsustainable land management and climate change are turning drylands into deserts, and desertification in turn exacerbates and leads to poverty," said Annan. "There is also mounting evidence that dryland degradation and competition over increasingly scarce resources can bring communities into conflict. Furthermore, people whose livelihoods and survival depend on drylands are swelling the ranks of environmental and economic refugees who are testing the already stretched resources of towns and cities across the developing world."

Clearly, this is a major problem that requires our concerted attention. The suffering of two billion souls cannot go unheard. To bring it even closer to home, the mounting death toll of our Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan bears witness to the fact that unrest anywhere in the world affects us all.

There's much to be done. For starters, we can begin by learning more about World Environment Day and finding out what other countries around the world are doing to celebrate. It's both interesting and embarrassing to note that Canada doesn't even appear on UN's list of countries that are planning World Environment Day activities. Even the US is hosting seven major events.

If you're stuck for ideas or need inspiration, the official UNEP website features The World Environment Day Alphabet which offers 77 ways to celebrate. This A to Z listing has suggestions for everything from Awareness Days to Zero Emissions. The list is inspiring and a clear reminder of exactly how much more we Canadians could be doing to protect Mother Earth.


For more information about World Environment Day, including The World Environment Day Alphabet, and other UN programs visit the United Nations Environment Programme

The UN's Convention to Combat Desertification


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