New York

14 May 2008

Secretary-General's remarks to the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development

Mr. Chairman,

Honourable Ministers,

Your Excellencies,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am honoured to address you on the occasion of the opening of the High Level Segment of the 16th session of the Commission on Sustainable Development.

We meet at a time of profound concern and painful loss. The cyclone in Myanmar and the earthquake in Southwest China have caused massive suffering. It is a call to our common humanity, and underscores our challenge to work for improved lives for all people.

You have had a week-and-a-half of intensive review of the major challenges we face in our quest for sustainable development. The review has focused on extremely relevant and timely topics –agriculture, rural development, land, drought, desertification and Africa –including the specific challenges facing the small island developing states (SIDS). You have also considered progress in implementation of the water and sanitation agenda.

Now, we must reflect on what we have heard and what it means for the policy deliberations in the coming year. In the meantime, we face pressing problems which need to be addressed now.

Permit me to offer my own reflections on our urgent priorities.

After a quarter century of relative neglect, agriculture is back on the international agenda, sadly with a vengeance. The onset of the current food crisis has highlighted the fragility of our success in feeding the world's growing population with the technologies of the first green revolution and subsequent agricultural improvements.

Agriculture needs reinvigorating. Productivity growth has been slowing for some time. Soils are becoming depleted and less fertile, water is growing scarcer in many places, and good agricultural land is being lost to other uses and to degradation. Public investments in agriculture, including donor support, have been on a downward trend. Yet, public investments were crucial to launching and sustaining the first green revolution.

Just two weeks ago, I created a Task Force on the Global Food Crisis. This Task Force will spearhead urgent, concerted and sustained action by the UN system, in cooperation with other key actors, to address both immediate food needs and the medium- and long-term challenge of boosting agricultural production to feed the world's growing population.

We need to work together to develop a new generation of technologies and farming methods which make possible a second green revolution, one which permits sustainable yield improvements with minimal environmental damage and contributes to sustainable development goals.

In our renewed support for agriculture and rural development, we will need to prepare our agricultural systems for the effects of climate change, which is predicted to have negative impacts on agricultural and land productivity in many parts of the tropics –and especially in Africa and South Asia.

Small island developing states face special challenges with respect to climate change. Freshwater resources and land suitable for agriculture are already scarce in many SIDS, and sea level rise, coastal erosion and saltwater intrusion would worsen these scarcities.

We need to support research on a variety of adaptation technologies, including better adapted crop varieties and agricultural techniques, especially for the most affected regions of the world. In coming decades, water stress is likely to become more severe in many places which already face scarcity. Improved methods of water conservation and use will be needed. Drought and desertification are likely to worsen, and investments will be needed to slow and even reverse desertification where possible.

In recent years, bio-fuels have re-emerged as one option in response to climate change, and also to concerns over energy security. We need to study carefully both the potentials and the risks of bio-fuels. Most would agree, I think, that we need to ensure that policies promoting biofuels are consistent with maintaining food security and achieving sustainable development goals.

The challenge of boosting agricultural productivity is nowhere more pressing than in Africa. Africa was largely by-passed by the first green revolution. Now, the time has come to work for an African green revolution. It is urgently needed: to feed a rapidly growing population, to improve nutrition and health, and, in the process, to accelerate progress towards achieving the Millennium Development Goals.

I have convened the MDG Africa Steering Group as an initiative to mobilize international financial and development organizations in support of achieving the MDGs in Africa. One of its key recommendations is to support the launching of an African green revolution within the framework of NEPAD's Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme.

The private sector, foundations and civil society need to be mobilized behind this effort. Already, some major philanthropic foundations –notably the Gates and Rockefeller foundations –have taken the lead in supporting the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA).

The MDG Africa Steering Group also focuses the UN system's efforts on other priority African concerns, including strengthening health systems on the continent, preventing and treating infectious diseases, investing in education for all with gender parity, ensuring access to safe drinking water and sanitation, and developing critical infrastructure to raise productivity and integrate Africa into the global economy.

For this century truly to become an African century, strong and committed leadership is needed, along with an active civil society to advance social and economic progress and to protect the environment. The international community will need to support Africa's sustainable development in the spirit of the global partnership agreed to in Monterrey in 2002. Not only must ODA be increased in line with donor commitments and made more effective, but conditions must be created for substantially increased private investment flows to the continent.

With regard to the water and sanitation agenda, I am glad to note that the Commission has devoted considerable attention to reviewing the decisions it took during CSD-13. It is clear that the rate of progress is still too slow to meet the MDG-7 environmental sustainability targets. This will hold back progress towards achieving the other MDGs involving poverty, nutrition and health.

Therefore, it is important that the Commission find ways to accelerate the implementation of CSD-13 decisions. In this regard, Delegates have stressed, and rightly so, the need to raise public awareness; the need for increased funding, not least to guarantee affordable water and sanitation for the poor; and the need to incorporate a gender perspective into the water and sanitation agenda. I would urge the Ministers to make best use of the opportunity provided this year by the International Year of Sanitation to raise awareness and accelerate implementation of that agenda.

Let me conclude by stressing that the stakes of this cycle of the Commission's work are high. Solutions cannot wait. The world is looking for concrete action as well as new ideas on how to tackle the formidable challenges we face in the months and years ahead. This Commission can and should offer both. I know that, in particular, this session can serve as a key step in the sequence of international efforts to create a comprehensive action plan for food security, including, next week, the ECOSOC special session on the origins of the crisis and policy responses, and, next month, the FAO high-level conference on world food security in Rome. I can assure you of my own strong commitment and that of the UN system to assist the Commission in this important endeavour.