An Environmental Odyssey in the Making

Published on 5th September 2017

Some 600 years ago, Zheng He led the Ming Dynasty’s fleet to Mombasa, Malindi, Zanzibar and Mozambique. That quest for peace and prosperity – the sharing of friendship and knowledge – connected China and East Africa as never before. And it was part of a wider transfer of technology, art, language, writing and paper making that helped the world transform itself.

It’s a story still being written today, thanks to the sea route of the Belt and Road Initiative. We will need that flow of knowledge, culture and technologies to transform lives, but even six centuries later, the circumstances can be just as challenging.

However, by bringing together the scientific community, not only can China and Africa protect our shared ecosystem and the people who depend on it, but we can achieve our shared goal: to implement the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Paris Agreement on Climate Change.

It was only last year, at the Climate Conference in Marrakech that we launched the decade-long flagship programme on climate, ecosystems and livelihoods. To see this conference being held in Africa with such a large number of scientists and practitioners from different countries is remarkable.

The UN Environment’s International Ecosystem Management Partnership leverages South-South Cooperation to advance the 2030 Agenda among developing countries. It honors China’s determination to bring global leadership to tackling climate change and environmental damage. And it demonstrates our shared commitment to generating tangible results – not just for national targets, but for real people.

That’s crucial for two reasons. First, because the poorest are most vulnerable to the impact of climate change on ecosystems that provide food, shelter and livelihoods. And second, because healthy, well managed ecosystems can in turn protect people from at least some of the effects of climate change. If we look after the ecosystems, the ecosystems will look after us.

Ecosystems provide us with multiple services. To all of us. Not only to the poor, though the poorest are obviously more vulnerable to ecosystem degradation. Ecosystems and Livelihoods. Development. Job Creation. Food production. Water. Revenue Generation (e.g. tourism). Disaster Risk Reduction. Multiple other services like water, oceans, soils;

In the last few years, it has been a real pleasure – both professionally and personally - to witness the growing partnership between Africa, China and UN Environment.

Africa is a land that challenges us like no other. But it is also a land of hope – a land of unprecedented opportunities. Opportunities which the 2030 Agenda can help to realize - if we keep science and the heart of our decisions and our actions. That’s why this meeting today is so important. That’s why we must have the same courage, determination and friendship as our ancestors.

I know how much knowledge is already there both in Chinese and African institutions. You have access to big data. You have access to the latest science. You can see our landscapes from the sky. You can even see, from the space, our underground rivers and other aquifers. You can predict our weather with a precision never seen before.

Your challenge, our common challenge is to put that knowledge, in a timely fashion, at the disposal of our farmers, our pastoral communities, our decision makers.

While we cannot prevent natural disasters from happening, we can mitigate their catastrophic impact on human lives, on national economies. By doing so, we will reduce unwanted migration as well as conflicts over access to scarce natural resources.

Our decade-long Programme on Climate, Ecosystems and Livelihoods for Africa will only succeed if it manages to build solid bridges between scientists across nations.

By Ibrahim Thiaw

UN Deputy Executive Director.

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