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Interview with Klaus Toepfer, UNEP executive director

[Kenya] Klaus Toepfer, executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). [Date picture taken: 02 February 2005] UNEP
Klaus Toepfer, UNEP executive director
Klaus Toepfer, 67, has been executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and director-general of the UN office at Nairobi since February 1998. Since his appointment, he has restructured the organisation to help advocate for his belief that the environment should not be an impediment to a country’s economic development, but a trigger for growth and peace. He is a full professor at the University of Hannover, and before joining the UN he held several posts in the federal government of Germany. He retires from his post at the end of March. QUESTION: What global and local climatic factors are causing the increasing frequency of drought in the Horn of Africa? ANSWER: Deforestation is clearly a major problem. Roughly 62 percent of precipitation occurs over land as a result of evapo-transpiration from lakes and wetlands and dense vegetation, in particular forests pumping water held in the soils into the air. In comparison, only around 38 percent of precipitation is generated over oceans and seas. If we chop down the trees, we are destroying the environment’s ability to produce the moisture needed to curb drought effects. The decline in global coffee prices has also led to a decline in maintenance of coffee plantations and the agricultural practice of terracing. This has also added to levels of erosion and soils entering the rivers. Plus, you have the poor maintenance of roads and other infrastructure, which obstructs access to markets and perpetuates poverty. Behind all this is the impact of global climate change, the result of burning fossil fuels. This is already triggering more extreme weather events including droughts, floods and storm surges. Some scientists also talk of evidence that other important phenomena like El Nino and La Nina are returning and speeding up as a result of global warming, as a result of more energy in the system driving these events. Q: Are other factors exacerbating the problem? A: Numerous other factors are likely to be making things worse. Population increase is an aspect, but on its own should not be seen as a major culprit. It is more the way this is managed. For example, poverty is for sure the most toxic element driving people to damage their environment and seek short-term solutions to acute problems. So we need to deliver sustainable economic development, which has a lot to do with levels of overseas development aid and global trade, including perverse subsidies in areas from agriculture to fisheries. Then you have a lack of energy in rural areas, which forces people to cut down trees and drives them into cities, where the urban infrastructures, including water supply systems, are unable to absorb such numbers. Agriculture accounts for 70 or more percent of freshwater withdrawals while returning only some 30 percent back to the environment, and so is generally wasteful. Overstocking of livestock in fragile lands adds to erosion. Livestock is also hugely water-intensive. It takes some 11,000 litres of water to produce enough feed to make enough meat for a quarter-pound hamburger. Globally, there has also been a shift towards more water-thirsty produce - meat rather than vegetables and fruits rather than cereals. Q: What can be done to minimise the frequency of the phenomenon? How can the resilience of the environment and the human population be improved so both cope better with drought? A: We have got to fight climate change by realising meaningful and ultimately substantial reductions in greenhouse gases, and we must help vulnerable communities adapt to the climate change which is already here and that which is to come. We need to invest in the rehabilitation and repair of degraded and damaged nature, from forests all the way through to wetlands and river systems. This would have multiple benefits with forests - also important sources of local medicines - and wetlands, which are not only important for water storage but natural water purifiers. If you do this, you find nature will benefit people during times of plenty and be a buffer against times of hardship, including climate-change extremes. Improved micro-credit schemes can help people through times of difficulty so they are not forced to take damaging and destructive solutions, so they can better husband their resources. We must also look to local and indigenous knowledge on drought-proof crops and agricultural systems and ensure a fair playing field in international trade so that poorer countries can play their part in lifting themselves out of poverty. And we have to push for good governance and less wasteful management of scarce resources. Specifically, we need to encourage the adoption of drip rather than spray agriculture so that less water is wasted. Q: Are there examples of measures taken that have alleviated the effects of drought elsewhere in the world? A: There are numerous measures that can be taken, numerous examples trying to deal with the complex interrelationships behind the phenomenon. A recent report by the World Resources Institute, produced with UNEP, the United Nations Development Programme and the World Bank (“The Wealth of the Poor: Managing Ecosystems to Fight Poverty”) highlights a project in Tanzania. It is a re-forestation project in an area called the Shinyanga region just south of Lake Victoria. Until recently it was nicknamed the Desert of Tanzania as a result of deforestation and the conversion of woodlands into croplands. However, an 18-year project aimed at creating village-based woodland enclosures has reversed land degradation and improved rural livelihoods. Some 350,000 hectares of ngitili, the local word for enclosures, have been planted, covering well over 800 villages and 2.8 million people. A new study by the Tanzanian government found that the cash benefits of the restoration are about US $14 per person per month, some $5.50 higher than the national average of $8.50 per person per month. Fuel wood, timber and medicinal plants are amongst the highest economic value to households, with other outputs - including thatch, fodder for livestock and wild foods including berries and honey - and they take the longest to gather. But now villagers are reporting big cuts in the time taken to collect materials. For example, the time taken to collect fuel wood is down between two to six hours a day; to collect water is down by up to two hours a day and to forage between three and six hours during the harvest season. Income generated by the communal enclosures - for example from timber sales - has helped some villagers to build classrooms, village offices and healthcare centres. The time saved by women in collecting natural resources is allowing them more time to focus on other income-generating activities while fostering better child care and school attendance. Then you have countries like Costa Rica, which has shown that imaginative economic solutions can pay dividends. For example, hydroelectric companies there make ecosystem payments to communities upstream to avoid deforestation and the loss of water storage. Wider adoption of rainwater harvesting, where pits or special holding tanks are installed and rainfall is collected directly from the air or from roofs, could also help. In China, 17 provinces are using the method to provide drinking water to 15 million people and backup irrigation for 1.2 million hectares of land. Q: What are the best- and worst-case scenarios for the current Horn of Africa drought crisis in the coming months? A: It is very simple. Unless we get substantial and sustained rains, then the prospects for much of this region are grim. We face a full-scale famine. We must feed and get water to the needy, but unless we tackle the root causes - namely the damage of the peoples’ natural or nature capital - the problem will return again and again.

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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