Mr. President, Mr. Secretary-General, Distinguished Delegates:
It is indeed a great honour for me to participate in the United Nations Special Debate on Issues of Environment and Development I am here at this distinguished gathering not only to speak about environmental dangers and the struggle to save the Earth's environment, but also to share with you our recent traumatic experiences of environmental disturbance and anomaly. As we are devoting our deliberations today solely to topics relating to environment and development I will not speak about any international political issues; my government's views on them have already been stated by my Foreign Minister when he had the privilege of addressing you earlier this month.
Before I proceed, however, Mr. President, may I congratulate you on your election to preside over this 42nd Session of the General Assembly. I have no doubt that you will discharge your important duties with efficiency and skill. I would also like to convey my compliments to the Secretary-General, His Excellency Perez de Cuellar, for the exemplary manner in which he has been working for the cause of world peace and international understanding.
It is my particular pleasure today to express my sincere appreciation of Prime Minister Gro Brundtiand of Norway, Chairman of the World Commission on Environment and Development, for her dedication to "the challenge of facing the future and of safeguarding the interests of coming generations", as she herself words it in the Commission's exhaustive report, 'Our Common Future'. Indeed, I thank her for setting the noble example of a national leader who is motivated by an active concern for all the peoples of the world. I would also like to congratulate the United Nations Environment Programme, UNESCO's Man and Biosphere Programme, and the United States Environmental Protection Agency for their commendable pioneering efforts in the fight to save the world's threatened environment.
Mr. President, Distinguished Delegates:
We are gathered here today at a time of potential crisis confronting our planet and its population the crisis of environmental destruction man has invoked upon himself. Man's action over many centuries have transmuted the natural order of his environment to the point where the whole world is ensnared in the consequences. As the scale of man's intervention in nature increased, the scope of nature's repercussions have multiplied. Consequences of the actions of individual nations have reverberated globally, and all mankind's present and future generations may suffer the penalties for the errors of a few.
Today, the world is faced with risks of irreversible damage to the human environment that threaten the very life-support systems of the earth - the basis for man's survival and progress. According to studies conducted by the UNEP, 35 percent of the earth's land surface, an area larger than the African continent, and inhabited by more than 20 percent of the world's population, is at risk from desertification. Upto a total of 20 million hectares of tropical forests, an area nearly the size of the United kingdom, is estimated to be lost each year. And as much as from half a million to a million species of life on earth could be extinguished over the next two decades. These are all 'without precedent in human history. The words 'environmental trends' have now come to embody a host of appalling global predicaments such as desertification, mass deforestation, loss of genetic resources, water pollution, toxic air emissions, hazardous wastes, acidification of the environment and world sea level rise.
Scientists all over the world now accept the fact that concentrations of atmospheric carbondioxide and other 'greenhouse gases' will continue to increase in coming decades, mainly as a result of human and industrial activities. They agree that these gases effectively enhance the greenhouse effect and deplete the stratospheric ozone layer and that these effects will, among several other critical implications to life on earth, gradually raise the earth's temperature and change its climatic patterns. Such global warming would not only thermally expand the oceans but also melt the polar ice-caps. World sea level will consequently rise significantly faster than during the past century. Scientific findings now predict a possible mean sea level rise of about I metre within a century. Such a rise would have critical impacts on all coastal and island nations, and prove physically, socially, and economically disastrous.
The predicted effects of the change are unnerving: there will be significant shoreline movement and loss of land. A higher mean sea level would inevitably lead to increased frequency of inundation and exacerbate flood damage. It would swamp fertile deltas, causing loss of productive agricultural and land vegetation, and increase saline encroachment into aquifers, rivers and estuaries. The increased costs of reconstruction, rehabilitation, and strengthening of coastal defence systems could turn out to be crippling for most affected countries.
A number of scientists and organizations have independently carried out preliminary case studies on the possible effects of sea level rise on different key coastal areas of the world such as the Netherlands, the United States, Egypt, Bangladesh and the Maldives
The study conducted in the Netherlands estimated that a I metre rise in sea level would make it 10 times more likely that the advanced coastal defence infrastructure presently protecting the country will be overtopped. Tidal wetlands, areas of high agricultural and horticultural importance, and densely populated urban industrialized zones, including the Rotterdam harbour area, will be threatened by erosion, salination, or increased vulnerability to storm surges.
According to studies compiled by the United States Environmental Protection Agency, a sea level rise of a few metres would, in the United States, inundate major portions of Louisiana and Florida, as well as beach resorts along the coasts; a rise of one or two metres by the year 2100 could destroy 50 to 80 percent of the United States coastal wetlands. The studies revealed that in the case of Egypt, a I to 3 metre rise in sea level could erode upto 20 percent of the nation's arable land, unsettling up to 21 percent of the country's population, or over 10 million people. In Bangladesh, this rise could swamp upto 27 percent of the total land area, displacing upto 25 million people.
As for my own country, the Maldives, a mean sea level rise of 2 metres would suffice to virtually submerge the entire country of 1,190 small islands, most of which barely rise over 2 metres above mean sea level. That would be the death of a nation. With a mere I metre rise also, a storm surge would be catastrophic, and possibly fatal to the nation.
We in the Maldives have seen and lived through grim experiences which could be the indicators of the dire consequences of global environmental change provoked and aggravated by man.
Geographically, the MaIdive Islands lie in the equatorial calm of the northern Indian Ocean, away from cyclone paths. The brief annual monsoonal turbulences and the occasional high tidal swells hardly ever endangered the 195,000 inhabitants of the islands. Until now. This year, the frequency and magnitude of unusual tidal wave action has risen alarmingly. The period from the 10th to the 12th of April recorded the highest sea level evidenced in the country, during which unusual high waves at high tide struck the islands with a ferocity that inflicted extensive and unprecedented damage throughout the country. Male', the capital island, housing a quarter of the nation's population, suffered the worst of the ordeal. One-fourth of the urban land was inundated by salt water, and 30 percent of the land reclaimed during the last seven years was completely washed away.
The nation's only international airport sustained extensive damage to its physical infrastructure and installations. Along the full length of the archipelago, large parts of several islands on the south and southeastern atoll rims were extensively flooded or inundated. Breakwaters, harbours, boats, causeways, houses and property fell victim to the ocean's assault Agricultural crops and vegetation succumbed to the salt water encroachment above and below the ground surface. Throughout the country, beaches were damaged, placing at risk one of the country's chief income generating natural resources.
The incident was branded a freak at that time, but it recurred in the southern atolls, though to a lesser extent during June and September, and we are now compelled to accept the traumatic reality that the worst may yet be to come.
It was the testimony of ordinary people, as Mrs. Brundtland had remarked, that convinced the World Commission on Environment and Development, of the human costs of such environmental destruction. As such, I have brought to this Special Debate the testimony of the people of the Maldives The rich and developed nations clearly have the wealth and the land to defend themselves from a rise in sea level even if they wait for it to occur, yet they are already preparing. Because small states are more vulnerable, we have to prepare sooner. But the Maldives lacks the economic, technical and technological capability to deal with the formidable prospects of a significant rise in sea level. We did not contribute to the impending catastrophe to our nation; and alone, we cannot save ourselves.
The profound dilemma of environmental transition is a global one, and its implications are worldwide and long-term. Though the Maldives and other low-lying archipelagic nations may have to suffer the most immediate and the most extreme effects of a global sea level rise, there is a potential danger to a significant portion of the world's population in the near future. The costs of lethargy and complacency in investing in environmental protection and improvement are clearly spiraling. Measures cannot be taken in isolation. No one nation, or even a group of nations, can alone combat the onset of a global change in environment,
Mr. President Distinguished Delegates:
Given the trends of international involvement in the issue of environment, the Maldives can only offer the experiences of an endangered nation. The MaIdive Islands are not merely the home of a few thousand people - they are a unique natural phenomenon, as found nowhere else on this earth. It is the phenomenon Thor Heyerdahl, the Norwegian explorer, describes in his book 'The MaIdive Mystery' as "...green jade necklaces and scattered emerald jewellery placed on blue velvet..", with each islet a "separate gem set in a ring of golden beach sand..."
The Maldives possesses delicately balanced fragile and transient environmental ecosystems in its atolls of coral islands and reefs. It is endowed 'with islands crowned with green palms and lush tropical vegetation, fringed with white sandy beaches, and inset within stretches of clear turquoise lagoons and living reefs. A beauty canopied by blue skies and nurtured by pure fresh air and warm sunshine.
It is now a distressing probability that the environmental change caused by industrial progress in the developed world may slowly drown this unique paradise in its entirety. The country's ecosystems alone, by virtue of their uniqueness and vulnerability, deserve protection. Our authorities are monitoring the sea level changes with two gauges recently installed as part of the Inter-Governmental Oceanographic Commission's Gloss Global Sea Level Network Elementary monitoring and research activities on these ecosystems are being initiated in the country. We need to monitor the increases and understand the response of our coral reefs. We hope that this activity, if augmented by a concerted international effort, can evolve into a worthy scientific research programme which can ultimately help save millions of lives around the world. With such help, the Maldives can be protected and preserved as a biosphere reserve for scientific study, or an environmental sanctuary of aesthetic beauty and tranquillity which can benefit all the world.
It is in the interest of all the world that climatic changes are understood and the risks of irreversible damage to natural systems, and the threats to the very survival of man, be evaluated and allayed with the greatest urgency. The world has already seen the first few steps of this new and much needed awakening. The WMO and the International Council of Scientific Unions are promoting the world climate research programme. National and international organizations and movements are trying to make headway against the rising tide of environmental destruction, and the list is too long to be cited here. All these efforts, and specifically the UNEP's initiative actions, such as signified by the World Commission on Environment and Development and the recent and historic Montreal Protocol, an agreement to reduce the worldwide use of chlorofluorocarbons, bring rays of hope into the bleakness of the issues. But this is not enough. The hope must be sustained and realised. In the face of a global threat, anything less than an all-encompassing international commitment and effort can become futile in this colossal struggle.
The economic, technical and technological resources are available collectively. It is not too late to save the world. It is not too late to save the Maldives and other low-lying island nations. Only the vital collective commitment is missing. And I believe we are gathered here today to initiate just such a commitment
Thank you, Mr. President