Opening of the 16 Session of the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development

Mr. Chairman,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am honoured to address you at the opening of this 16th session of the Commission on Sustainable Development.

Your agenda – agriculture, rural development, land, drought, desertification and Africa – brings together some of the most urgent and important international issues, affecting the basic quality of life for millions of people and the prospects, of all countries, for sustainable development. You will give special attention, within that context, to Small Island Developing States. And you will also review progress in implementing the CSD-13 decisions on water and sanitation.

Your in-depth consideration of the inter-linkages among all these issues can highlight effective ways to reduce barriers and constraints to achieving sustainable development goals, including the eradication of extreme poverty and hunger.

Despite global progress in cutting poverty since 1990, especially in parts of Asia, poverty remains concentrated in rural areas. Growth in agricultural productivity is key to further poverty reduction. A prosperous agriculture sector can support a dynamic rural economy, with growing opportunities for “off-farm” employment.

However, we currently confront a major world food challenge, which threatens to unravel gains, as well as exacerbate poverty and malnutrition. Over the past few years, and especially in the past few months and weeks, world food prices have risen steeply. In five weeks, the price of rice has doubled. This is worsening hunger and malnutrition, sparking social unrest and depleting government coffers.

The international community has only belatedly recognized this food crisis, threatening much of humanity. Even as we mobilize resources to meet the immediate food needs of the poor, we must think ahead. We must analyze the deeper problems that have undermined food security, and how we can avoid such crises in the future.

Stepping back, the larger picture that we see is, at once, simple and complex. The basic problem is that agricultural productivity growth has been slowing since the 1970s, even as demand for food has been accelerating. Yet, the realities on each side of the equation involve a host of inter-related factors.

On the supply side, the public agricultural R&D system – which played such a vital role in the first “green revolution” – has been starved of funds, as donors have decreased support for agriculture. Public spending to raise food agricultural productivity must be increased.

Another factor is land degradation, a serious problem in many parts of the world. To reverse it, long-term investments are required. Secure access to land can help stimulate such investments, including by unlocking credit to farmers.

In Africa, where only 4 per cent of agricultural land is irrigated, investments are urgently needed in water storage and regulation. This includes improved water-conserving methods of irrigation. Few other investments would do as much to raise food production, while reducing the risk of drought and famine. International donors can play an important role in financing these investments.

While many regions face problems from inappropriate fertilizer and pesticide use, with associated environmental problems, in Africa, fertilizer and pesticide use remains very low. There is little production of fertilizer in Africa, and the costs of importing it are very high. Greater investment in this sector in Africa could help make fertilizer more accessible and affordable there, boosting food production.

On the other side of the equation, population growth, rising prosperity and changing diets are contributing to steadily increasing food demand.

Still another factor pushing up food prices is the growth in non-food agriculture. In particular, we have seen a rapid increase in production of bio-fuels by countries seeking to reduce consumption of fossil fuels and emissions of greenhouse gases – as part of efforts to address both energy security and climate change.

Yet, the potential impact of climate change itself on agriculture is one of the many reasons it is such an urgent issue for the international community. Left unaddressed, climate change is expected to do serious damage to tropical agriculture, especially in Africa and South Asia, which, by the year 2050, will have an additional 1.8 billion people to feed.

People in water-stressed environments – in drylands – are among the most vulnerable and food insecure. They rank poorer on such indicators as per capita income and infant mortality than people living in any other type of ecosystem. And they face many constraints to achieving sustainable development goals.

Sound practices in land and water management are crucial to preventing drylands from becoming deserts. By one estimate, 20 to 50 thousand square kilometres are lost, each year, to land degradation and desertification – an area the size of a number of countries (Belgium is around 30,000 square kilometres).

Climate change is expected to exacerbate desertification in some regions, and drought episodes may increase. Many African countries depend on climate-sensitive sectors like rain-fed agriculture, making them especially vulnerable to the impacts of drought. Adaptation will be crucial. Countries in the African Sahel have long experience with adapting to drought, which offers some positive lessons.

Climate change has also contributed, in Small Island Developing States, to coastal erosion, soil and freshwater salinization, and more frequent and intense tropical storms – all of which harm agriculture. Greater investment in the expansion and diversification of the rural economy in SIDS – and the development of stronger inter-sectoral linkages between agriculture, fisheries and other sectors of the economy – will be important to build resilience.

More than 50 per cent of all SIDS are food-deficit countries or net food-importing countries, a situation further worsened by the rising cost of energy.

Examining this cluster of issues – agriculture, rural development, land, drought, desertification, Africa – and with a special emphasis on SIDS, can contribute significantly to the platform of understanding upon which to build the global response to the food crisis, as well as to climate change.

This session of CSD could not be better timed or better focused. I know it will influence the international effort, over the next few months, to devise a concrete and comprehensive action plan for food security, covering both immediate needs, and medium- and long-term solutions.

Your deliberations will, in fact, contribute to a sequence of efforts to secure the political will, policy measures and financial resources needed to rise to the challenge. This includes the special session of the Economic and Social Council on 20 May to consider the origins of and policy responses to the food crisis, which will be followed in early June by the emergency summit convened by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in Rome.

Mr. Chairman,

Let me turn to some further reflections focused on Africa. Over the past several years, Africa has registered impressive gains in some key areas.

In education, primary enrolment rates have increased and literacy has improved in almost all countries, with gender disparities reduced markedly. In health, child and maternal mortality rates have declined, significantly in some countries. And measles deaths are down sharply, thanks to vigorous vaccination campaigns.

Since 2000, many African countries have benefited from strong economic growth. Commodity prices, including oil, have been rising, and several African countries have improved macroeconomic management.

The rapid spread of mobile phone use has spawned innovative and wide-ranging services, from mobile banking to crop price quotes for farmers.

Yet, Africa continues to face extraordinary challenges on its road towards sustainable development. Even with recent growth, Africa

is not on target to achieve the Millennium Development Goals. The proportion of people living on less than US$1 per day in sub-Saharan Africa has been decreasing recently. But it is still more than twice the average for developing countries.

The AIDS epidemic is a growing burden, though rates of new infections are slowing. In some countries, AIDS-related deaths have caused changes in population structures, which can have profound implications for sustainable development.

Physical infrastructure remains inadequate. More than 500 million sub-Saharan Africans do not have access to modern energy services. Road networks need to be developed and maintained. Many countries are landlocked and rely on neighbours to get their goods to foreign markets.

Official development assistance has risen, but lags behind the commitments made by developed countries. And biases in the global trading system still impede efforts by developing countries, in Africa and elsewhere, to rise out of poverty.

Allow me to close with a few remarks on the review of implementation of the decisions of CSD-13. Countries have put in place wide-ranging policies to enhance access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation, and to promote the adoption of integrated water resource management frameworks. But results have been mixed. Current trends suggest that, by the year 2015, the world may meet the MDG target on safe drinking water, but will not meet the sanitation target.

Many countries have begun preparing water management plans. However, rising population growth, rural to urban migration, and unsustainable consumption patterns continue to affect both the quantity and quality of freshwater resources. Also, projected climate change may intensify the stress on available freshwater.

Mr. Chairman,
Distinguished Delegates,

I wish you a very productive and successful session. I am confident that you will do your utmost to bring all these difficult issues together to identify impediments to progress in achieving sustainable development and to exchange experiences and lessons learned.

On behalf of UN-DESA and our many partners in the United Nations system, I assure you of our strong commitment to assist the Commission in this important endeavour.

Thank you.

File date: 
Monday, May 5, 2008
Statement by Mr. Sha Zukang, Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs to the Opening of the 16th Session of the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development

New York, 5 May 2008