United Nations System-Wide
Recommendations on
Information, monitoring, assessment, and early warning

Task Force Report to the Secretary-General - 15 June 1998 (extract)
Report of the Secretary-General to the UN General Assembly - 6 October 1998 (extract)


June 15, 1998 (Extract)
(Full document available as an annex to the Secretary-General's Report to the General Assembly at the UN gophur gopher://gopher.un.org/00/ga/docs/53/plenary/a53--463.en )

D. Information, monitoring, assessment, and early warning

36. Pursuant to the Action Plan that was adopted at the Stockholm Conference, UNEP developed during the 1970s the Earthwatch system for assessing the condition of the global environment. Chapters 38 and 40 of Agenda 21 called on UNEP to strengthen Earthwatch, "especially in the areas of urban air, freshwater, land resources (including forests and rangelands), desertification, other habitats, soil degradation, biodiversity, the high seas and the upper atmosphere," and to make the resulting information more available for decision making.

37. UNEP was named as Task Manager for Earthwatch by IACSD. The mission of Earthwatch, as agreed in 1994 by the inter-agency Earthwatch Working Party, is "to coordinate, harmonize and integrate observing, assessment and reporting activities across the UN system in order to provide environmental and appropriate socioeconomic information for national and international decision making on sustainable development and for early warning of emerging problems requiring international actions. This should include timely information on the pressures on, status of and trends in key global resources, variables and processes in both natural and human systems and on the response to problems in these areas."

38. The Earthwatch system seeks to fulfill this mandate by integrating data and analyses from a variety of scientifically proven sources. These include, among others, the Global Environmental Monitoring System (GEMS), the Global Resource Information Database (GRID), and three Global Observing Systems (the Global Climate Observing System, the Global Oceans Observing System, and the Global Terrestrial Observing System). Earthwatch uses up-to-date communications technologies to maintain an excellent site on the Worldwide Web. However, the Earthwatch system and its capabilities are largely unknown to the large universe of decision makers and environmentally concerned members of the public who could benefit from it. Moreover, there are gaps and deficiencies in the underlying systems of data collection and analysis, and in the methods by which data and analysis are translated into information that is understandable to non-experts. UNEPís depleted staff in the area of monitoring and assessment lacks the ability to identify and correct these flaws.

39. Human settlement conditions are monitored and assessed by Habitat, which also collects, collates, and publishes statistics on human settlements conditions and trends. A new monitoring and assessment framework for the implementation of the Habitat Agenda will involve inputs from partners in Government and other elements of society.

40. Recommendation 9:

The Task Force recommends that UNEP and Habitat:

(a) Must as matter of high priority develop their capacity in the field of information monitoring and assessment in order to serve as an "environmental guardian," mobilizing the necessary resources from Governments, foundations, and international bodies.

(b) Carry out a short-term review to determine the steps needed to transform Earthwatch into an effective, accessible, well-advertised, science-based system that meets the needs of environmental and human settlements decision makers and the informed public and employs expert analysis and user feedback to correct deficiencies and update itself to meet changing needs.

(c) Take the actions, in intensive networking cooperation with national and international partner institutions, including NGOs and other major groups, that are needed to transform Earthwatch and sustain it as a fully effective system of information, monitoring, and assessment.

(d) Continue to elaborate problem-, action-, and result-oriented indicators for sustainable development in the field of environment and human settlements.

(e) Strengthen and further develop their capacity to serve as a clearing-house for collecting and disseminating information and data relevant to the condition of the environment and human settlements, including information from and to NGOs and other grassroots sources.

41. The Earthwatch system should be designed, inter alia, to alert the world to emerging environmental problems and threats. Information about such problems should be communicated in understandable terms to relevant decision makers, to the media, and to the informed public. Earthwatch also can contribute importantly to syntheses such as UNEPís GEO series and Habitatís periodic Global Report on Human Settlements.

42. Monitoring and assessment are closely linked to early warning of possible environmental emergencies through the prediction of extreme events or unusual environmental conditions. This kind of warning is extremely valuable for environmental and economic decision makers (for example, advance warning of drought conditions can enable farmers to plant drought-resistant crops). It may be possible to identify, on a long-term basis, potential "hot spots" or areas that are likely to be subject to rates of change that exceed the limits of sustainability and thus pose threats to regional or global security.

43. Recommendation 10:

The Task Force recommends that UNEP and Habitat design and maintain the system of information, monitoring, and assessment so as to maximize its ability to provide early warning of possible environmental and human settlements emergencies. It further recommends that UNEP consider establishing a capability to identify potential environmental and environment-related conflicts and provide information and analysis to guide the development of preventive measures, for example by the negotiation of joint actions.

UN General Assembly, Fifty-third session
Agenda item 30 (Document A/53/463 of 6 October 1998)
(Full document available at gopher://gopher.un.org/00/ga/docs/53/plenary/a53--463.en )

United Nations reform: measures and proposals
Environment and human settlements
Report of the Secretary-General

D. Information, monitoring, assessment and early warning

21. Both organizations carry important responsibilities related to the monitoring and assessment of critical developments in their respective fields of expertise, as well as the responsibility to provide relevant and useful information for decision makers in developing countries. In addition, both must be equipped to notify Governments at an early stage of negative or harmful developments in their respective fields that require either preventive or remedial action to be taken by the international community.

22. The Task Force recognized the central importance of strengthening and focusing the capabilities of the two organizations to play an important role in servicing the information requirements of member countries. In recommendations 9 and 10, a series of measures are proposed to be carried out by the secretariats of the two organizations. The recommendations are consistent with decisions and recommendations made in the respective governing bodies of UNEP and Habitat, as well as by the General Assembly and the United Nations Conference on Human Settlements (Habitat II), and comprise the following complementary measures:

(a) High priority should be given to developing capacity in the field of information, monitoring and assessment and serving as an "environment guardian" in providing the necessary information to enable the sound stewardship of the global environment by the international community;

(b) The Earthwatch system should be reviewed and a determination made of the steps required to transform it into an effective, accessible, well advertised, science-based system capable of meeting the needs of decision makers;

(c) Intensive networking and cooperation should be undertaken with national and international partner institutions to this end;

(d) Problems, action- and result-oriented environment and human settlements indicators for sustainable development should be elaborated;

(e) Capacity should be strengthened and developed to serve as a clearing house for data and information, including information from non-governmental organizations and other grass-roots sources;

(f) A system of information, monitoring and assessment should be designed and maintained so as to maximize its ability to provide early warning of emergencies;

(g) UNEP should consider establishing a capability to identify potential environmental and related conflicts, and to provide information and analysis for the development of preventive measures.

23. All the above recommendations are complementary to existing intergovernmental guidance emanating from the UNEP Governing Council, the Commission on Human Settlements and Habitat II. In the case of UNEP in particular, the Executive Director will be preparing a report for the consideration of the Governing Council of UNEP at its forthcoming session that will elaborate his proposals further in the context of the biennial work programme of UNEP for 2000 2001.

Under Involvement of Major Groups, paragraph 30, the following section is also relevant:

(f) UNEP and Habitat should strengthen their systems of receiving and responding to information from non-governmental organizations, especially on emerging problems, and encourage non-governmental organizations to provide information on new problems.

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