Geneva and sustainable development

Sewerage sanitation
Philippe Roch

Philippe Roch, former Head of the Swiss Federal Office for the Environment

Born in Lancy (Geneva), Philippe Roch earned a doctorate in biochemistry from the University of Geneva in 1977. He became a member of Geneva's Cantonal Parliament in 1973, headed the French-speaking branch of WWF Switzerland and then was Director General of WWFSwitzerland until 1992, when he was named head of the Swiss Federal Office for the Environment. He remained in this post until 2005 and represented Switzerland in numerous international negotiations.

Crossroads of environment and development

The example of water...

Water provides an example the importance of alliances in tackling global environmental problems.

The environment has become an inescapable part of all the major aspects of international politics, for natural resources determine both the conditions for and the limits of economic and social development.

Water provides a good illustration of this reality. Water is essential to life and to well-being. According to the UNDP 2006 Human Development Report, 17% of humanity (over 1 billion people) live without access to clean water, and 2.6 billion have no safe sanitation facilities - that is, toilets or drains. As a result, unhealthy water kills 5,000 children each day.

Agriculture globally uses 70% of the freshwater consumed, and every project to increase agricultural production depends on water. Industry cannot function without water for manufacturing, cooling and cleaning.

Poor management of water causes famines, migrations and armed conflicts. Sound management of water requires partnerships and coordination.

Geneva offers a unique place to facilitate this cooperation. The WHO is concerned with health problems linked to water pollution and water scarcity. WMO is the great specialist in weather issues, whose knowledge is indispensable for agricultural planning and the prediction of rain. UNHCR and the International Migration Organization (IMO) enable us to act at the level of movements of people. The human rights division (UNHCHR) is there to demand more justice in access to water.

Geneva is an essential contact point for individuals and organizations concerned with the environment from the perspective of sustainable development.

UNITAR and the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) have developed programs to train political representatives about water. They have been collaborating with UNDP to elaborate a water strategy for Iraq.

UNEP has a post-conflict branch in Geneva that studies the environmental damage resulting from armed hostilities. More and more, this branch is concerning itself with prevention, for example in the Sistan basin on the frontiers of Iran and Afghanistan, where water shortages are creating tensions.

UNEP in Geneva also administers the three conventions on chemicals and wastes. These are directly linked to the management of water resources.

Apart from UNEP at its Nairobi headquarters, other organizations such as UNESCO in Paris, FAO in Rome, the World Bank and the Global Environment Facility in Washington are also concerned with water. They all have offices in Geneva, and none of these other cities offers such a variety of partners.

Geneva is also rich in private counterparts to the intergovernmental organizations concerned with the environment, such as the multinationals, economic institutions, and numerous NGOs. The World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) and the World Economic Forum are links to a unique network of enterprises, particularly those that are active in water questions.

The International Rainwater Harvesting Alliance (IRHA), the World Conservation Union (IUCN), WWF International, Green Cross, the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL), the International Environmental Law Research Centre and the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) are among the NGOs active on water issues.

I have taken the example of water, but we find the same situation in all major international environmental questions, such as biodiversity - with IUCN, WWF and the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands at Gland; CITES, WTO, WIPO and the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV) in the Geneva region - as well as climate, chemicals, health, environmental law and environmental governance.

Geneva has no exclusive hold over environmental issues, but Geneva is the only place in the world where so much capacity in environmental analysis and management concentrates in one place. It is an essential address for any individual or organization wanting to tackle environmental issues in a holistic manner from the perspective of sustainable development.