Tuesday,18 June, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1389, (12 - 18 April 2018)
Tuesday,18 June, 2019
Issue 1389, (12 - 18 April 2018)

Ahram Weekly

Protecting bio-diversity in Egypt

Much is expected from Egypt’s hosting of the 14th Meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity in Sharm El-Sheikh in November, writes Mai Samih 

There is a balance between living beings and objects in the environment. If some species disappear, this will affect other species and human beings could lose something very important to them without realising it

Biodiversity underpins life on Earth and refers to the variety of the planet’s plants and animals. Human health ultimately depends upon the ecosystem’s products and services, including the availability of fresh water, food and fuel sources, all of which are prerequisites for health and productive livelihoods. The loss of biodiversity can have significant human impacts if ecosystem services are no longer adequate to meet social needs. 

The UN and the Egyptian government represented by the Ministry of Environment are teaming up to organise a conference in November entitled the 14th Meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity in Sharm El-Sheikh.

Minister of Environment Khaled Fahmi said that “there are three main international agreements in the field of environment that were ratified in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. These are the Climate Change Agreement, the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Agreement concerning Desertification. These three agreements are the ones that deal with the biggest environmental problems that impact a huge segment of humanity, which is why they were signed separately.”

“Conferences of the Parties that signed the agreements meet every one or two years, depending on the agreement, to discuss issues concerning the agreement and collective policies that can be implemented with the aim of facing up to environmental threats. The Convention on Biological Diversity is mainly concerned with the dangers that threaten living beings of all kinds, starting from fungi and moving up to human beings,” Fahmi told Al-Ahram Weekly.

He said that biodiversity could be closely related to the economy. For example, cattle egret are friends of farmers because they get rid of unwanted insects. Should these birds be threatened or become extinct, crops would be negatively affected because of the multiplication of insects.

Similarly, much tourism in Egypt depends on coral reefs. Should the reefs be damaged by climate change, meaning increasing sea temperatures and acidity, the reefs may undergo bleaching that in time will destroy them. Fish living in the coral reefs will become extinct, and all these things will not only affect biodiversity but will be potentially devastating for the tourism industry. 

“The idea of the conference is to look at how biodiversity relates to various sectors of the economy, including petroleum, electricity and energy, and industry. The previous conference, held in Mexico in 2016, looked at agriculture. We are focusing on other sectors,” Fahmi said, adding that policy-making recommendations would follow.  

“The convention was signed by 196 countries, all of which are expected to attend the conference in Sharm El-Sheikh. There will be official delegations and monitoring agencies and events by NGOs, universities, and scientific gatherings on the sidelines of the conference,” he said, adding that it would be an opportunity for exhibitions on all topics concerning biological diversity. It is intended to promote communication between NGOs and governmental representatives from around the world, he added.

“What is new in the conference is that it will last longer and be more comprehensive in scope than ever before. It will take place from 10 to 22 November this year, preceded by five days of preparatory meetings. It will also focus international attention on Sharm El-Sheikh, giving a significant boost to tourism. An estimated 7,000 people will attend, and it will be attended by President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi along with the ministers of the environment, energy, petroleum, tourism and finance.”

“The UN secretary-general will be present, along with the head of the UN Development Programme, the Secretariat of the Convention on Biodiversity and other UN agencies. This is an international event that will gather businessmen and ministers of economic sectors with ministers of environment to discuss the relations between the economy and biodiversity,” Fahmi said.

Egypt has the presidency of the convention for two years until it is handed to China in 2020. 


ISSUES AT STAKE: Head of the Preparatory Committee for the Conference Hamdallah Zidan said there were important issues that Egypt intends to raise during the conference in Sharm El-Sheikh.

“First there is the idea of merging developmental sectors. At the prior Conference in Mexico, they focused on the agricultural, forestry, fishery and tourism sectors in terms of how these take into consideration biological diversity. In Egypt, sectors such as energy, mining, infrastructure like housing and roads, industry, and health will be looked at in relation to biodiversity,” Zidan said. 

These were sectors in which people with little experience of biological diversity may be working. Those working in agriculture and fishery are likely to have greater knowledge of biodiversity and how to preserve it, he said.

“The conference will be an opportunity for the world to adopt biological diversity issues in these sectors,” Zidan said. “Egypt is also trying to tie biological diversity to climate change,” notably by looking at ways in which biodiversity can function as a carbon sink, tying carbon dioxide emissions down and helping to mitigate climate change. “Another important element here is adaptation. Mangrove trees protect coast lines from erosion, for example, and help to preserve biological diversity. It is important to look at ways in which such natural defences can be strengthened, which is why Egypt wants to tie the two together,” he added.

The UN assistant secretary-general and UN Convention on Biological Diversity Conference executive secretary, Cristiana Pasca Palmer, listed the main points likely to be discussed by the participants. “This Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity takes place during the 25th anniversary of the entry into force of the convention and will discuss efforts already undertaken by governments as well as any additional efforts needed to accelerate progress to achieve 2020 targets. It will also lay the groundwork for negotiations of the post-2020 UN global biodiversity framework,” she said. 

There is a balance between living beings and objects in the environment. If some species disappear, this will affect other species and human beings could lose something very important to them without realising it

In addition to this, reviewing progress made in implementing the convention and the Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020 is likely to be important, as well as looking at progress made towards achieving UN Sustainable Development Goal 15 (SDG 15), which promotes mainstreaming biodiversity within and across sectors, specifically energy and mining, infrastructure, manufacturing and processing, and health.

“Digital sequence information on genetic resources, resource mobilisation, the financial mechanism of the Convention, which is the Global Environment Facility [GEF], enhancing integration under the convention and its protocols regarding provisions related to marine and coastal biodiversity (ecologically or biologically significant marine areas, anthropogenic underwater noise and marine debris, biodiversity in cold-water areas and marine spatial planning), biodiversity and climate change (ecosystem-based approaches to climate-change adaptation and disaster risk-reduction), synthetic biology, invasive alien species, and protected areas and other measures for enhanced conservation and management,” are all also important topics, Palmer said.

Commenting on the effect of the conference on Egypt and neighbouring countries, Palmer said that “among the general public in the region, one of the positive outcomes of this conference will be heightening awareness of the importance of preserving and conserving biodiversity and its ecosystem services. We also expect it to raise the political profile of biodiversity and ecosystems in the region.”

“The conference will be attended by thousands of participants. This will be a boost for tourism and a proof of the restoration of security in Egypt,” Zidan said, adding that Egypt and the North African nations in particular would be able to determine their priorities regarding biodiversity and other issues. 

There is a balance between living beings and objects in the environment. If some species disappear, this will affect other species and human beings could lose something very important to them without realising it

HISTORY AND GOALS: What makes the coming conference unique is that it will start the process of developing a new post-2020 strategy for conserving and sustainably using biodiversity. 

This comes at a time when biodiversity is rising on the international agenda, and the importance of biodiversity as a solution to a number of development challenges is being recognised. Climate change, water security, food security, public health and other issues are ones that nature can help provide solutions to. The conference will make legally binding agreements on some of the issues discussed, Palmer said.

“If you look at a certain environment, you will find living beings and non-living objects like the soil and its contents, including minerals, all interact with each other. This produces material like food and water, or raw material like what we make clothes with, or medicine or environmental services like the oxygen we breathe,” Zidan said. 

There is a balance between living beings and objects in the environment. If some species disappear, this will affect other species. If this occurs, human beings could lose something very important to them without realising it. “The number of living beings existing on earth is undetermined. The beings that have carefully been studied are not more than three million, for example. Every day we lose some 100 to 150 species, and we don’t even know what we have lost or whether it is something important to us or not. This is a result of human activities, whether in agriculture, or industry, or generating energy. Human beings destroy forests and pollute environments, and this can result in the disappearance of biological diversity,” he said.

There are examples of this problem in Egypt and the region. The use of pesticides is one instance of negatively affecting biodiversity. Another is using chemical fertilisers or using imported plant species in farming that make farmers neglect original strains, which could become extinct because not used.

According to the latest Red List (December 2017) produced by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), an international organisation, there are 163 species in Egypt known to be threatened, including 18 types of mammal, 14 types of bird, 13 types of reptile, 54 types of fish, and eight types of plants, among others. This makes Egypt one of the biggest countries in terms of losing biodiversity in the North Africa region after Morocco, with 213 species known to be threatened, and more than Algeria that has 140 species known to be threatened.

Palmer commented on the international agreements made to decrease the use of pesticides, such as the Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions. 

In response to such problems, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) convened an Ad Hoc Working Group of Experts on Biological Diversity in November 1988 to explore the need for an International Convention on Biological Diversity. “The UN Convention on Biodiversity was signed at the United Nations Earth Conference in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 and ratified in 1993. 196 countries have ratified it, apart from the United States, which has not done so for essentially economic reasons,” Zidan said. 

There is a balance between living beings and objects in the environment. If some species disappear, this will affect other species and human beings could lose something very important to them without realising it

“Only two member states of the United Nations are not parties to the convention — the United States, which signed the agreement but has yet to ratify it, and the Vatican,” Palmer said. “Egypt graciously offered to host this year’s meeting,” she added.

“Egypt and Turkey made a bid to host the conference, but Egypt was supported by the Arab and African nations. Given the fact that the last time the conference was held in Africa was 2000, and that it had never been hosted by an Arab country and after negotiations with Minister of Environment Khaled Fahmi and the Foreign Ministry, it was decided that Egypt should host it,” Zidan said. 

“We need more people to understand that biodiversity provides the basic goods that we need for our survival and well-being. For example, among other things biodiversity provides basic goods such as food, fibres, fuel and medicine. It underpins ecosystem functions and the provision of benefits to people, such as water purification and supply, pollination, regulation of pests and diseases, soil nutrient recycling and fertility, as well as ecosystem resilience and contributions to the ability to respond to unpredictable global changes and natural disasters,” Palmer said. 

While the benefits of biodiversity are important for all, some benefits are especially important to indigenous people and the poor and vulnerable groups. To them, the goods and services provided by ecosystems underpinned by biodiversity often constitute social safety nets. For example, almost one billion people in developing countries depend on fish for their primary source of animal protein, and as many as 80 per cent of people living in rural areas in developing countries rely on traditional plant-based medicines for basic healthcare, Palmer noted.

“We need to ensure that people know that nature-based solutions can help meet the objectives of multiple international environmental agreements in unison. Nature-based solutions are solutions that are inspired and supported by nature. They are an efficient and cost-effective way of providing environmental, social and economic benefits and building resilience,” she said.  


WIDER GOALS: Palmer adds that these solutions also offer opportunities for addressing the UN Sustainable Development Goals agreed in 2015. 

These address challenges such as air, water and soil pollution. Nature-based solutions can not only reduce emissions of greenhouse gases and sequester more carbon, but they can also enhance resilience to climate change and provide a variety of ecological goods and ecosystem services such as water filtration, flood buffering, improved soil fertility and habitat for biodiversity.

According to Palmer, Egypt will play an important leadership role in the conservation and sustainable use of global biodiversity. As the host of the UN conference, the country will hold the important post of conference president, usually held by the minister of environment of the host government. The highest official at the meeting, the president provides political leadership, acts as a facilitator among all the parties to the negotiations, consults on the issues, moves negotiations forward, sets the tone for the next period, and steers efforts by the international community towards meeting the objectives of the UN convention.

The conference president carries out his or her duties in a neutral and impartial way, and acts as an official of the meeting rather than as a representative of his or her government. Egypt will serve as president until the next meeting of the Conference of the Parties, due to be held in 2020, elects a new president, Palmer said.

At the last UN Biodiversity Conference, held in Mexico in 2016, governments agreed to work at all levels and across all sectors to mainstream biodiversity by establishing effective institutional, legislative and regulatory frameworks, tailored to national needs and circumstances, and incorporating an inclusive economic, social, and cultural approach with full respect for nature and human rights. 

Actions included ensuring sectorial and cross-sectorial policies, plans and programmes, as well as legal and administrative measures and budgets established by governments, integrating in a structured and coherent manner actions for the conservation, sustainable use, management, and restoration of biological diversity and ecosystems. Biodiversity values were to be integrated into national accounting and reporting systems, national strategies and action plans were to be updated and implemented, and institutional support and capacities for biodiversity mainstreaming strengthened. Sectors that depend or have an impact on biodiversity were to be required to adopt integrated approaches for its conservation and sustainable use, and the fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from the use of genetic resources.

“Every 10 years there is a strategy set for biological diversity. The last one was from 2011 to 2020, so it has not ended yet. However, starting from the time Egypt is president of the conference, preparation for the new strategy will start, from 2021 to 2030. Egypt will monitor developments and start to focus on how to deal with them,” Zidan said.  

“A one-day meeting of African environment ministers will precede the conference on 6 November to determine the needs and priorities of Africa concerning biological diversity. Then on 7 and 8 November there will be a meeting on the level of ministers or a high-level segments meeting,” he added. 

“The convention will continue its processes and meetings that support implementation, according to the direction set by Parties to the Convention. Above all else, governments will work to establish the post-2020 global framework for biodiversity, and ensure that this is integrated with the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda, with the global climate agenda, and other relevant international processes,” Palmer commented.  

“Egypt has already organised more than one workshop at a high level regarding biological diversity in Egypt. There will be another in May and another in September. Another meeting on the level of experts will also be held to prepare for the upcoming meetings since they are the ones that lead the process. Since Egypt is going to be the president of the conference, more meetings will be held afterwards as well,” Zidan said.

Fahmi said that Environment Ministry programmes concerned with environmental protection were part of its biological diversity commitments. Everything concerned with fishery resources, plant resources, and gene banks in Egypt is taken care of collectively between the ministries of environment, agriculture, scientific research and fishery resources, among others. This includes managing the 30 natural protected areas in Egypt that make up 15 per cent of the country’s total area.

“The law on nature reserves will be ratified soon. We will also establish a new organisation for protecting nature. There will be a new law called the biological safety law and another on environmental benefits. We intend to work on implementing these from this summer onwards,” Fahmi concluded.  

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