hda.jpg (11658 bytes)

Delhi Sustainable Development Summit 2002
Ensuring sustainable livelihoods:

challenges for governments, corporates, and civil society at Rio+10
8 - 11 February 2002, New Delhi

hdx.jpg (5704 bytes)

Home Themes Speakers Papers Bulletin Media coverage
8 Feb. 2002 9 Feb. 2002 10 Feb. 2002 11 Feb. 2002
DSDS 2002: Plenary session 9, 11 February 2002

Technological leapfrogging: the lure and the limits
Eisa Hussain Al-Majed
Director, Regional Office for Asia and the South West Pacific, World Meteorological, Organization, Geneva


During the 20th century the world had become increasingly aware of the fragility of the environment. It marked the beginning of human-induced climate change, increasing climate variability, and a host of interconnected issues, such as land and water degradation, loss of biological diversity, and atmospheric ozone depletion. All too often, there were many who suffered the impact of natural disasters. In the 21st century probably the greatest challenge facing humankind is the need to provide a good standard of living (i.e. sufficient food, water, health care and energy) for the present and in the future a much larger population, while that the environment is not degraded.

The influence of human activities on the Earth’s environment has already moved the Earth system outside the range of natural variability exhibited in humankind’s history. The nature of changes, their magnitudes and rates of change are unprecedented. These also suggest that the world’s present development path is not sustainable.

In this connection, it has been increasingly recognized that to meet the needs of society and its growing population, and to avoid further undermining the Earth’s essential life-support systems consisting of air, water, seas and land, a new paradigm of scientific inquiry needs to be invoked. It is a paradigm that addresses the complex interaction between the various components of the Earth system, as well as their interaction with society.

This paradigm has now been referred to as sustainability science, that is, science and technology in service of a transition towards sustainability. This requires in-depth exploration of goals, trends and transition on the pathway towards sustainability, including consideration of environmental threats and opportunities, and relevant actions. It is imperative that consideration be given to a paradigm shift on how we view the interaction and synergy between environment and society, in relation to sustainable development.

The advances in science and technology offer unprecedented opportunities in observing and monitoring as well as in communications and data processing, satellite-based monitoring, automated data handling systems and increasingly powerful computer. The nature and pace of these changes also offer unprecedented opportunities to address the environmental challenges of the 21st Century. However, the use of these technologies, place increased demands in terms of finance and expertize on developing countries. In addition to affordability, the question of applicability and adaptability has to be addressed.  

In this statement, I will draw from the experience of the WMO and its national counterpart, the National Meteorological and Hydrological Services (NMHSs) in dealing with the science and technological advances as they relate to natural disasters, etc.


Natural disasters

Natural disasters have resulted in an enormous annual toll of human suffering, loss of life and property damage sometimes reaching US$ 440 billion in a year. In the past 20 years, natural disasters worldwide have killed over three million people (with 90 per cent of deaths occurring in the developing countries), inflicted injuries, facilitated the spread of diseases and displaced over one billion people. Statistics have also shown that reinsurance claims related to natural disasters have increased three-fold between the 1960s and the 1980s. The 1997–98 El Niņo event resulted in global socio-economic losses of more than US$ 96 billion, with about 110 million people affected world-wide.

Yet technical means exist and others are under further development for the application of the atmospheric and related sciences to reduce losses through improved observation networks, communication facilities, analysis, forecasting, warning and preparedness systems, all-hazard risk assessments for design of safer structures and land-use zoning in areas prone to natural disasters. For instance, improved forecast of tropical cyclones with effective dissemination of warnings and wider awareness and preparedness of the vulnerable population in Bangladesh led to reduction of loss of life about 200 deaths in 1999 compared to 13,000 in 1991 and 300,000 in 1971 for tropical cyclones of similar intensity.

Warning services before disasters strike can and should be improved. In particular, emphasis should be given to the strengthening of the relevant observation, processing and communication capacities of National Meteorological and Hydrological Services (NMHSs) so that the appropriate warnings can be provided.


Climate change and sea level rise

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), established by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in 1988, made the world aware of the relevant scientific findings on climate change, impacts and adaptation strategies. In accordance with the IPCC the global average surface temperature is on the increase. There is new and stronger evidence that most of the warming observed over the past 50 years is attributable to human activities. Global average temperature is now projected to increase by 1.4-5.8°C between 1990 and 2100. The global mean sea level is also projected to rise by 9 to 88 cm for the same period. The prospect of rising sea level is one of the most widely recognized potential impacts of climate change with serious implications to countries with extensive coastlines and to Small Island Developing States. In addition, there are also impacts to agriculture, food production, human settlement, fresh water, health, and ecosystems, among others; all of these have a bearing on our efforts towards poverty alleviation.

The appropriate advice and assessment to respond to climate change, it is important that there is adequate support for the monitoring of the climate system, such as those foreseen in the Global Climate Observing System; a system that has been recognized as essential for the implementation of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The monitoring of the greenhouse gases through the WMO Global Atmospheric Watch should also be strengthened.


Freshwater availability

To meet the water-related target of the United Nations Millennium Declaration by the year 2015, an additional 1.6 billion people will have to be provided with access to affordable safe water, and 2.2 billion people with access to adequate sanitation facilities. Considering the population growth, it is estimated that by the year 2025, about 17 per cent more water will be needed to grow sufficient food and reduce hunger.

There are now 22 countries that have renewable freshwater resources under 1 000 m3 per capita per year, commonly accepted as a benchmark for freshwater scarcity. Some estimates suggest that currently, the amount of fresh water available for each person in Africa is about one-quarter of what it was in 1950, while in Asia and South America, it is about one-third of the 1950 figure.

Freshwater shortage is expected to be the most dominant water problem in this century and one that, along with water quality, could well jeopardize all other efforts to secure sustainable development, and could even lead to social and political instability in some cases. It has been recognized that significant action will need to be taken to ensure that the monitoring and assessment of water resources quantity and quality are provided, if the water needs of people in different parts of the world are to be met. Hence, this is another challenge that must address.


Ozone depletion

It is necessary to continue addressing the issue related to the protection of the Earth’s atmosphere, such as ozone layer depletion as much progress have been made already. However, continuing assessment of the status of the ozone layer is needed to help ensure the implementation of the Vienna Convention on the Protection of the Ozone Layer and the Montreal Protocol and its Amendments. The assessments of the ozone layer use information obtained from the WMO Global Ozone Observing System (GO3OS); the enhancement of this observing system also needs to be ensured.


WMO supporting programmes

In all these and other areas, such as satellite meteorology, WMO coordinate and collaborate with regional and international organizations in providing an international technical and scientific framework for addressing these issues and others including the implementation of joint projects and programmes. WMO has been contributing and will continue to contribute, as the Organization responsible in the United Nations system on matters concerning the state and behavior of the Earth’s atmosphere, its interaction with the oceans, the patterns of climate produced and the resulting distribution of water resources. WMO has several major Programmes supporting its activities related to the enhancement of early warning systems of severe weather, monitoring of the climate system, improved assessments of freshwater resources, pollution monitoring and control, and climate change detection, such as the World Weather Watch, World Climate Programme, Hydrology and Water Resources Programme, Atmospheric Research and Environment Programme, Technical Cooperation Programme, Education and Training Programme.


Role of WMO and National Meteorological and Hydrological Services (NMHSs)

At the country level, WMO cooperates with the National Meteorological and Hydrological Services (NMHSs) to help ensure benefits to society in many areas; such as protection of life and property, safeguarding the environment, promoting sustainable development, providing information and assessment for relevant policy formulation, and in meeting international commitments. The enhancement of the capacity of these National Meteorological and Hydrological Services, particularly in the area of observations, communications and warning services, will be crucial in ensuring that they more fully serve the interest of society in the quest for sustainable development. WMO and the National Meteorological and Hydrological Services stand ready to play their role as we collaborate towards our common goals.


Conclusions and recommendations

It must be recognized that the governments provide continuing support for the National Meteorological and Hydrological Services and for strengthening of the major environmental monitoring programmes. Research efforts in areas of the environment will also require strong support if continuing advances are to be made for the benefit of all humanity.

The recommendations are as follows:

  • Maintenance and, in many instances, the accelerated development of the long-term sustainable global systems for the collection, processing and dissemination of the meteorological, hydrological and oceanographic data and products, including forecasts;
  • Continuous operational monitoring of the state of the atmosphere, oceans and fresh water,
  • Continuous monitoring of the composition of the atmosphere, including ozone;
  • Fostering research and cooperative efforts, which result in improvement in weather forecasts and seasonal to interannual climate predictions, that can provide advance warning of natural hazards leading to disasters;
  • Support to the implementation of the multilateral environmental agreements such as the conventions on climate change, biodiversity and desertification; and
  • Support to developing countries to enable the to address more effectively a wide variety of climate and environmentally related concerns.