United Nations System-Wide
  Earthwatch Working Party 3
(New York, 17-18 January 1996)

1.   The third meeting of the Earthwatch Working Party was convened by UNEP and hosted by UNDP in New York on 17-18 January 1996, with Earthwatch focal points and other representatives of agencies, organizations and convention secretariats of the United Nations system in attendance (see Annex 1).  The meeting was opened by the Deputy Assistant Executive Director, Environment Assessment Division, UNEP, and Coordinator, UN System-wide Earthwatch.

2.   The Working Party approved the provisional agenda (see Annex 2), and invited Mr. Peter Gilruth, UNDP, and Mr. Michel Jarraud, WMO, to serve as co-chairs of the meeting.  It was agreed to work informally and by consensus.  The representative of DPCSD informed the meeting that the Inter-Agency Committee on Sustainable Development was meeting in early February and had asked to receive the report of this meeting.

Agenda Item 3: Progress Report

3.   The Coordinator, UN System-wide Earthwatch presented a progress report (UNEP/EWWP3/1) summarizing the decisions on Earthwatch at the third session of the Commission on Sustainable Development and the Eighteenth UNEP Governing Council, and describing actions taken on decisions of the last Earthwatch Working Party.  The papers submitted to these bodies and the resulting decisions provided a strong basis for the UN system- wide Earthwatch as a mechanism to support better coordination across the UN system, building bridges and identifying areas for cooperation and gaps to be filled.  At a time of decreasing resources, it is important to help in setting priorities, and to show how information and assessment responsibilities can be carried out more effectively.  Coherence among all activities on information for decision-making is important, as demonstrated by holding the integrated and complementary series of meetings on Development Watch, Earthwatch, access to data and core data sets.  The possibility of combining more issues in a single meeting could also be considered.

4.   With reference to the recommendation of the ACC, accepted by the UNEP Governing Council, that the Earthwatch Working Party should give further attention to conceptual issues involved in linking socio-economic and environmental assessment and reporting, the Working Party noted the importance of this issue to the success of Development Watch as well as Earthwatch, and considered this question a high priority.  Summary information was provided on progress in such initiatives as the SCOPE project on indicators of sustainable development, which was initiated with the cooperation of the Earthwatch Coordination office and supported in part by UNEP, and was addressing linkages, as well as the Global Environmental Outlook process organized by UNEP, with its focus on models and scenarios integrating social, economic and environmental concerns.  The Working Party recommended that Earthwatch should continue its catalytic activity in this area, and in particular should identify those groups or projects working on such linkages and encourage them to cooperate in responding to the need for workable approaches that could be implemented in assessing sustainable development at the national and international levels.  The SCOPE project in particular could be invited to identify those methodologies which might be useful for integrating indicators into useful measures of sustainability that could assist decision-makers at the national level.

5.   The UN System-wide Earthwatch Programme Document assembled last year has proven to be very useful.  The electronic version should be kept continuously up to date, and all partners were requested to provide information on changes to the secretariat.  More sections on information activities under the conventions were also required; the secretariats could be sent the questionnaire provided earlier to the agencies.  The printed version of the programme document should be revised as part of the preparations for the 1997 review of progress on Agenda 21.

6.   The difficult issue of principles or policies for the sharing of information within the UN system is being considered by the Information Systems Coordination Committee (ISCC).  WMO had recently adopted a meteorological data policy which was distributed at the meeting.  It was recommended that all Earthwatch partners that have data sharing policies should provide them to the secretariat so that they could be distributed to the organizations as a basis for further discussion on this issue.  The question may also be addressed in the subsequent meeting on access to data.

7.   The secretariat should continue to collect information on participatory observation activities for eventual use by agencies that might need these approaches to fill data gaps.  The interest of religious leaders in Earthwatch was appreciated, and it would be useful if the secretariat could obtain the names of focal points in religious organizations with whom to follow up.  WMO already makes considerable use of such participatory observations on an ad hoc basis.

Agenda item 4: Review of actual and potential inter-agency collaboration in the framework of Earthwatch

8.   Many of the organizations present reported on their recent data collection and assessment activities.  It was agreed that it would be useful in the framework of Earthwatch to have a system-wide multi-year calendar or schedule of planned assessment activities and reports to facilitate collaboration and joint programming.  The secretariat was requested to propose a format or matrix for such a schedule, with a mechanism so that each partner could submit and then regularly up-date information on their own activities.

9.   The increasing importance of the environmental conventions in data collection and assessment to meet their reporting requirements justified continuing efforts to involve them in the system-wide Earthwatch.  As more such conventions are implemented, there may be a tendency to shift assessment responsibilities from UN agencies to the conferences of the parties and their advisory bodies.  Earthwatch would provide an appropriate forum to discuss and suggest ways to resolve potential areas of overlap or duplication, and to ensure that the widest use was made of all data collected, beyond the immediate requirements of the conventions.  The oceans were identified as an area where more coordination in some specific data collection and reporting might be needed with the increasing number of agreements and activities, although this could also be addressed in the ACC subcommittee on oceans.  The participation of two convention secretariats in the Working Party was appreciated, and others had indicated that, although they could not be present, they wanted to stay involved in Earthwatch.

10.  The Secretariat of the Basel Convention pointed out the growing requirements to collect and assess data on wastes, including their production, management and disposal.  This was a gap that had been neglected in the past and for which no UN agency has a central mandate.  In addition to the extensive data on hazardous wastes collected under the Basel Convention, a number of UN bodies have started to collect waste information in an uncoordinated way from different parts of government.  Since this is a new field, it should be possible to streamline data collection efforts and avoid mistakes made too often in other fields.  The Earthwatch Coordination office, in cooperation with the Basel Convention, was asked to find out from the pertinent parts of the UN system what kinds of data on wastes they need to collect, what they are actually collecting, and from whom.  It could then prepare a document defining the scope of the problem, which could be used to draw the attention of IACSD and other appropriate bodies to this important gap.

11.  The representative of the Law of the Sea Convention described their reporting requirements pursuant to the Convention and the relevant General Assembly resolutions as well as their information sharing and clearing-house functions.  IAEA provided an up-date of all their activities related to Agenda 21, and noted the new reporting requirements to be generated by the Convention on Nuclear Safety which was expected to come into force soon.  The UN Statistics Division reported on their Task Force on Environmental Statistics and their plans to distribute a questionnaire on environmental indicators to all national statistical services by the end of the year, so that routine data collection could begin next year.  DPCSD described progress on indicators of sustainable development, for which methodologies have been developed.  UNDP referred to the progress on Development Watch, in the meeting just preceding the Earthwatch Working Party, for which inter-agency collaboration would be essential.  WMO made available an up-date on their data collection activities, and the recent WMO/UNEP biennial climate system review. A review of the climate of the 20th century is being prepared, and agency participation was invited.

12.  UNICEF described their need for data relevant to environmental impacts on the health and well-being of children, which might be collected by or held in other agencies.  Examples given were agrochemical use in rural areas, lead contamination, and other aspects of environmental degradation that could affect women and children.  It was agreed that health effects were a significant cross-linking issue in assessments, related for instance to toxic wastes under the Basel Convention, radioactive wastes under IAEA, and the use of chemicals in general.

13.  UNEP provided a description of its new Global Environmental Outlook process and report, which was a forward-looking biennial report on the state of the environment based on a global participatory assessment process.  It would include an overview of regional concerns, models and scenarios to provide an integrated view of present and future concerns, and illustrative examples of selected issues such as trade, production and consumption, drylands and biodiversity.  Organizations involved in the system-wide Earthwatch were invited to contribute to the preparation of this report.  A particular need was for brief information on changes in the state of the environment or in our understanding of environmental problems since the Rio conference in 1992.  The Working Party requested UNEP to provide more details in written form so that the agencies could respond effectively.  Concern was expressed that any significant contribution from agencies to the GEO report should be appropriately identified and acknowledged.

14.  There was a general concern that budgetary problems around the world were resulting in a significant reduction in environmental observation and data collection activities just when the importance of that information for management action to avoid major problems was being recognized.  Earthwatch was important to build a case for adequate support to essential observations of the planetary environment.

Agenda item 5: The Earthwatch World Wide Web site and the evolution of a UN information system

15.  UNEP presented its proposals for a UN system-wide Earthwatch World Wide Web site at http://www.unep.ch/earthw.html (UNEP/EWWP3/2) as well as a paper suggesting the possible conceptual evolution of a UN information system (UNEP/EWWP3/3) to provide the background and context within which an Earthwatch initiative in this area should be developed.  Information on UNESCO-MABnet (http://www.unesco.org:80/mab/theMabnet.html) had also been supplied to the meeting by UNESCO.  The CSD also has a web site with all its documentation (http://www.un.org/dpcsd/home.htm).

16.  The representative of the IOC presented the interactive electronic bulletin on the World Wide Web (http://rainbow.ldeo.columbia.edu/igoss/productsbulletin) developed by the Lamont- Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University under the aegis of the IOC/WMO Integrated Global Ocean Services System.  This operational system demonstrated the potential for providing free interactive access to and distribution of global data sets in ways that facilitated their comparison and integration with other kinds of data.  The tools developed were offered for use with other data sets in the framework of Earthwatch.  While this bulletin had been developed as a scientific and academic activity, there was a need for modest continuing financial support from member States to maintain the system on an operational basis.  This is a problem common to many observation and assessment activities that should be addressed in Earthwatch.  The development of useful outputs or products would help to provide the justification for support of such operational systems, as demonstrated by the observations necessary to predict the El Niño- Southern Oscillation and its global impacts.

17.  The Information Systems Coordinating Committee (ISCC) is developing the UN system's home page (http://www.unicc.org/), which is being supported operationally by the ICC.  It will include directories of all UN organizations, an index by subject area and a search capability.  The Working Party confirmed that directories and metadata about environmental databases are important.

18.  With the rapid growth in the activities of all Earthwatch partners to establish World Wide Web sites on the internet, there was strong support for a continuing Earthwatch role to interlink and facilitate access to all this information.  The work of Earthwatch should complement the work of the ISCC on the technical aspects of UN system collaboration over the internet.  Each partner should keep its identity and its responsibility for its own information at its own site, but Earthwatch could assist in a loose coordinating role, such as by assembling tools for user access and suggesting forms of information presentation and interlinkage that would respond best to user needs.  The system-wide Earthwatch home page should provide an entry point and cross-linking service between the Earthwatch partners, with each agency page providing a pointer back to the system-wide Earthwatch.  The goal could be a kind of "virtual" system-wide Earthwatch inter- relating the contributions of each partner.  The first priority should be to target users in governments and the UN system.  It was agreed that the Earthwatch Coordination office should continue to provide proposals on the structure and format of web sites, and should help to coordinate the use of any capacities which the partners might be able to make available in a shared effort to develop a coherent and efficient World Wide Web system.  The agencies in the Geneva area could form a local group for collaboration on this, with other partners involved by e-mail if they so desired.

Agenda item 6: Mechanisms for effective early warning

19.  Since early warning of major international environmental problems is one of the concerns of Earthwatch, the secretariat presented a discussion paper on some possible mechanisms for early warning on environmental issues (UNEP/EWWP3/4).  Early warning was recognized by the Working Party as an important concern of Earthwatch that required continuing work.  Any further efforts should be complementary to the work on short-term early warning of disasters, and to early warning mechanisms that already exist and that were working well in particular areas.

20.  The recent excellent report of the Secretary-General to the General Assembly on early warning of disasters (A/50/526), prepared under the leadership of IDNDR, should be distributed to all participants, as it provides a useful overall analysis of short-term early warning mechanisms.

21.  In order to identify the real needs for additional early warning mechanisms, the secretariat was requested to prepare a report on gaps and deficiencies in early warning, perhaps based on past examples, to facilitate further discussion on this issue at the next meeting.  All the participants in Earthwatch were invited to submit examples of inadequate early warnings to the secretariat.

22.   A related issue already highlighted by the Working Party at its last meeting was the need for better mechanisms to distribute some early warnings to a wider audience beyond the constituency of a particular agency.  The proposed Earthwatch policy bulletins might be a mechanism to do this.  This issue should be a high priority for further work under Earthwatch.

Agenda item 7: The global observing systems

23.  As a contribution towards keeping all of the partners in Earthwatch informed of the status of the Global Observing Systems (GCOS, GTOS and GOOS), UNEP submitted for the information of the participants a document prepared at its request on the origins, characteristics and present state of development of these systems highlighting the common elements between the systems and the need for a common strategy for global observations (UNEP/EWWP3/5).  WMO noted a number of problems with the document in its present form, since it had not been prepared on behalf of the co-sponsors, and time had not permitted its review and correction by the co-sponsors before its distribution at the meeting.  In particular, the report should give more emphasis to the extensive coordination and collaboration that already exists between the observing systems, and to the long-standing contributions of data from sources such as the World Weather Watch, Global Atmosphere Watch, IGOSS and IODE.  UNEP took note of the corrections proposed by WMO to be incorporated before further distribution of the document.

24.  The Working Party expressed its great pleasure with the recent decision to establish a support office for GTOS within FAO, and for the significant support that FAO  and the other co-sponsors were making available to ensure the effective launching of this important programme.

25.  With respect to the need for further coordination between the observing systems, the Working Party noted that the co-sponsors were considering the establishment of a small umbrella group of the co-sponsors and secretariats of the three systems.  It decided to keep this item on its agenda, as it was useful for the larger circle of Earthwatch participants to be kept informed of the progress in these major observation activities.

Agenda item 8: Participation by governments, the scientific community and non-governmental organizations

26.  The Earthwatch Working Party had discussed the involvement of the scientific community and NGOs in Earthwatch at its last meeting, but had only decided to include appropriate information on their activities in the Earthwatch Programme document.  A recent problem had arisen when it did not seem appropriate to discuss coordination among the Global observing Systems in the Working Party because the International Council of Scientific Unions (ICSU), a co-sponsor of all three systems, was not a participant in Earthwatch.  After considerable discussion of the advantages and disadvantages of NGO participation in a UN system coordination process like Earthwatch it was agreed that non-UN organizations can be invited on an ad hoc basis to attend specific meetings or parts of meetings of the Earthwatch Working Party where their expertise is appropriate to the mission of Earthwatch.  In such cases, any participant or the secretariat can make proposals regarding the participants, and if there is no objection, the secretariat can issue such invitations.

Agenda items 9-12: Other business

27.  Given the increasing difficulty many organizations felt in attending meetings requiring travel, the Working Party considered to what extent its work could be undertaken by electronic means.  The secretariat provided a short paper with proposals for a "virtual" Earthwatch Working Party (UNEP/EWWP3/6) so that the participants could review the implications of new technologies for their work.  A major handicap at present is that a significant number of Earthwatch focal points do not yet have adequate internet connectivity, and would thus be excluded from such exchanges.  It was agreed to start experimenting with work through e- mail on certain subjects that were most appropriate to that form of decision-making, but that the nature of the wide-ranging discussions necessary for system-wide Earthwatch coordination required some face-to-face meetings.  The possibility of video-conferencing, at least between two groups gathered in Geneva and New York, should be explored.  Consultations on the agenda by e-mail, and distribution of working papers well in advance of the meeting to allow those unable to attend to comment in writing (as had been done with the major papers for this meeting), would also help to keep everyone involved.  Comments from absent organizations on the reports of Earthwatch Working Party meetings could also be considered at subsequent meetings.

28.  It was agreed that the next meeting of the Earthwatch Working Party would be held in Geneva in October 1996, preferably in conjunction with the next meeting on Development Watch.  This meeting would prepare major input for the Task Managers' report on Agenda 21, Chapter 40: Information for Decision-making, for the five year review of progress in implementing Agenda 21 by the Commission on Sustainable Development and the UN General Assembly Special Session in 1997.  It should therefore have a broader scope than the usual meeting and be organized in cooperation with DPCSD.

29.  The participants noted in closing the excellent spirit of inter-agency cooperation in the Earthwatch Working Party, which should certainly lead to effective results.

30.  The report of the meeting was reviewed and adopted.

31.  The meeting was closed at 5:10 p.m. on 18 January 1996.  

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List of Participants (addresses deleted)


UNDP        Ms Eva Lokko, Division for Administrative and Information Services

UNSO        Mr Peter Gilruth, Technical Advisor, Environmental Information Systems
UNDPCSD Ms Mary Pat Williams Silveira, Senior Officer, Division for Sustainable Development

UNICEF     Ms Jingjing Qian, Water, Environment and Sanitation Cluster
UNSD        Ms Reena Shah, Environment, Energy and Industry Statistics Branch

UNU          Ms Suzanne DiMaggio, UNU Office in North America

UNEP        Mr Arthur Dahl, Coordinator, UN System-wide Earthwatch
                  Mr Ashbindu Singh, Coordinator, GRID Sioux Falls


FAO         Mr Michael Hage, Liaison Officer, FAO Liaison Office with the UN

IAEA        Mr Jerry Barton, Head, Computer User Liaison Service

IOC          Mr Yves Tourre, IGOSS Scientific Adviser, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory

WMO       Mr Michel Jarraud, Deputy Secretary-General

Basel Convention
                 Ms Iwona Rummel-Bulska, Coordinator, Secretariat of the Basel Convention
Convention on the Law of the Sea,
                 Mr Vladimir Jares, Associate Law of the Sea/Ocean Affairs Officer



1.   Opening of the meeting
2.   Approval of the agenda and adoption of working procedures
3.   Report by the secretariat on progress since the last meeting, and on the decisions taken
     concerning Earthwatch at the Commission for Sustainable Development (April 1995)
     and the UNEP Governing Council (May 1995)
4.   Review of areas of actual and potential inter-agency collaboration in the framework of
5.   The Earthwatch World Wide Web site in the context of the evolution of a UN
     information system
6.   Mechanisms for effective early warning
7.   The global observing systems
8.   Stimulation of government participation and support, and involvement of the scientific
     community and non-governmental organizations
9.   Other business
10.  Date, venue of next meeting.
11.  Adoption of the report of the meeting
12.  Closing of the meeting

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UN System-wide Earthwatch Coordination, Geneva