Monday, 27 March 2017

What’s law got to do with it? Cleaning up the holy Ganga - written by Anjana Varma

My mother is nearly 62 years old. But if you meet her, you will see that she’s got the fiery nature of a young backpacking traveler whose restless strides have taken her the world over. On a recent phone call I had with her, I asked her ‘so where next? Paris? Singapore? What do you want to see?’ She replied, ‘Closer to home, I want to go to Varanasi and do Ganga darshan’. In Hinduism, darshan literally means to have an auspicious sight of a deity or a holy person. It was heartwarming to see that after nearly 30 years of having lived all over the world, nothing held more meaning to her than to make a pilgrimage to the holy city of Varanasi, which stands on the banks of perhaps the most sacred river for Hindus, the Ganga (or Ganges).

Aside from the fact that it is a lifeline for nearly 500 million people living along its banks, most Hindus pay homage to the river by taking a dip in the water as a means of atonement, paying respect to their ancestors whose ashes have been released into the water, offering it flowers and clay oil lamps. Small quantities of water from the river are used in rituals, and offered to loved ones for purification. Its ecological, symbolic, and religious importance is undeniable.

Yet today, it flows through the veins of the country as one of the five most polluted rivers of the world.

I spoke to my mother after her trip to Varanasi, which is also one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world, and asked her how it went. She was overwhelmed by the beauty, the history, the devotion of people, and the sanctity of the place. However, she was devastated by the pollution she witnessed.

This is why coming across the news that a state court in India had given the Ganga River (and its largest tributary, Yamuna River) the legal status as the ‘first living entity of India’ a few days ago, made me – quite simply – hopeful.

Much like New Zealand court’s ruling giving the Whanganui River a legal status, this too is a landmark judgment with far reaching implications. Giving a river the legal status of a living entity means that, much like people and incorporated companies, it has a right to defend itself. Through court appointed individuals, the river’s ‘rights’ can be represented in court allowing for greater accountability for inaction.

What perhaps often goes unnoticed is the significant role that law plays in the realm of environment and development. As someone who works in the Law Division at UN Environment, I certainly see it, and I am one of its biggest advocates (pun very much intended), as are my colleagues (it’s akin to preaching to the choir).

I would like to give you an example of the power of law and institutions: last year, a 16-year-old student filed a request under the Right to Information Act – which requires the government to respond to a citizen’s query within 30 days – to know the status of a major cleaning programme for the Ganga River. Much to her dismay and many, many others, it became public knowledge that despite millions of rupees being allocated to the cleanup – in reality – very little has been done. Law enables that transparency and accountability of the government to its citizens. When it comes to the environment, now more than ever, this is vital.

I told my mother about the ruling soon after the news, and she said: ‘that’s really great – maybe in my next trip there, I may even take a dip in the water.’ 

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Plastic - decidedly NOT fantastic! - written by Petter Malvik

I used to not care about the problem of marine plastic pollution. In fact, prior to joining UN Environment about 14 months ago, I was blissfully ignorant of the issue. Sure, I knew that so-called single use-plastic was bad and dutifully tried to bring my tote bag when I went grocery shopping, but the question of where our discarded plastic bags, straws and plastic soda bottles actually ended up was one which I had never really given much thought (this lead to a somewhat awkward job interview, but that is a different story).

This is no longer the case. Having been involved with UN Environment’s #CleanSeas campaign for almost a year (launching a campaign takes time), I now almost know more than I care to about what happens with the plastic items we throw away. I know that every year, at least eight million tonnes of plastic enter our oceans. I know that this river of plastic has devastating effects on our marine environment and the creatures that live in it. I am not going to bore you with too many numbers, but I need to give you a couple: in 2050 there could be more plastic than fish in the ocean, and it is estimated that about 90 percent of sea birds have ingested plastic. One study found that almost 670 different marine species have already ingested or been entangled by plastic.  The fact that fish eat plastic means that we are as well. That is the price you pay for being at the top of the food chain, while also throwing away lots and lots of plastic. As if this was not bad enough, we know that the plastic that fish eat is typically microplastics. These are miniscule pieces of plastic that can absorb whatever toxins are already in the water. We do not know yet whether this can be harmful to us humans, but the thought of the fish we eat feasting on toxic plastic is not a comforting one.

In addition to working with governments and the private sector, an important part of the campaign is encouraging people to change their habits in a way that reduces their plastic footprints, and using their purchasing power to encourage companies to do the same. As a good campaign worker, and as someone who now knows all too well what plastic is doing to our oceans, I am trying to follow suit. This means I am still bringing my tote bag to the grocery store. I am also bringing my travel mug when I get coffee, I try to remember to ask waiters not to get me a straw when I order a drink, and I do my best to avoid buying products that come with a ridiculous amount of excessive packaging.  I sometimes slip up, though. A couple of times, I have impulsively decided to buy coffee on my way into the office only to discover that I left my coffee mug there. This has resulted in me getting a huge plastic cup for my iced coffee. Obviously, the cup comes with a straw. Entering the UN compound carrying this highly incriminating piece of evidence, I feel as if I were walking around with a bloody knife or a copy of Waterboarding for Dummies, and I try, with various degrees of luck, to hide from my colleagues until I have finished my guilt-tinged coffee.

I am getting better though, and that is important! The thing with marine plastic pollution is that no one can solve the problem alone, but we can all do something, and we should!  Here in Kenya, I am reminded of this every time I go to Lamu. Located in the Indian Ocean close to Somalia, this small island is a little piece of paradise and one of my favorite places to visit. But even there I cannot escape marine plastic; I see it on the otherwise pristine beaches when I go for a morning walk and in the ocean when I go for a swim afterwards. For me, although sad, it reminds me that what I do at work matters.

It matters what you do as well, even if you don’t work for UN Environment. That is why I urge you to go to to join the campaign. Here, you can see what other people are doing to reduce their own plastic footprints. You can pledge to do the same, or you can come up with an action of your own. The time to act is now. Together we can turn the tide on plastic!