30th Meeting of the Ramsar Standing Committee -- Opening statements

30th Meeting of the Ramsar Standing Committee
Gland, Switzerland, 13-16 January 2004
Statement by Achim Steiner, Director-General of IUCN-The World Conservation Union Statement by Peter Bridgewater, Secretary General of the Ramsar Covention on Wetlands Statement by Andreas Wurzer, WWF Living Waters, on behalf of the International Organization Partners

Opening statement

Peter Bridgewater, Secretary General of the Convention on Wetlands

Madame Chair,
Mr Vice-chair,
Members of Standing Committee,
Distinguished observers.

Let me welcome you to Ramsar World HQ - I hope that for this occasion Achim Steiner will let me get away with putting it like that!!

My first task is to thank the SC for the confidence you have shown in me by selecting me for the Secretary General's post. It is a challenge I relish, and I really look forward to working with you in the time between now and COP9 - and hopefully after! I have a great team to support me, as you know, but we have two new members, Mr Abou Bamba who takes over as Senior Advisor for Africa, and Dr Sebastià Semene, who has been seconded generously by Andorra as a special assistant for outreach, media and culture.

Mr Bamba's appointment is timely, as, while Africa is always important, the development of NEPAD and the Holding of COP9 in Uganda makes his job especially important right now. And in an increasing media and Internet dominated world we have to work harder here than ever, to support and consolidate the excellent foundation we have so far achieved through the work of Sandra Hails and Dwight Peck.

So, neither Abou nor Sebastià will have a relaxing time, but I can promise them an exciting one! And, should the rest of the staff be relaxing, I am afraid my comments also go to you! But of course, this is really the moment to acknowledge the extraordinary commitment, enthusiasm and energy of the whole Secretariat team - I thank you all for the last few months.

Madame Chair,

In my initial remarks, I would also like to say I fully understand that Ramsar is special as a convention where the secretariat must work with the Contracting Parties in partnership mode, but it also has access to cooperative work from the International Organization Partners. This is a balance which must be maintained, but always trying to serve the wishes and needs of the Contracting Parties.

As we are now definitively in the 21st century, having entered the first or second leap-year, depending on your personal view of when the 21st century began, the last COP in Valencia could be seen as a transitional one from the 20th century to this one. COP9, in 22 months, must be a COP for, and of, the 21st century, and we must use the global political wish and will to tackle the water issue as a way of proving our value. These words will sound new for some of you, but I will explain more about this later. The synergy issue continues between ourselves and other secretariats, as it should. But the great challenge is to make this work nationally, and we can all help here - we rely absolutely on SC members and national AAs to help us achieve these desirable goals.

Specifically, let me say that, as this is my first SC, I have been a willing party to the production of the papers. But what I would really like to have, by Friday lunch time, is full ownership by all of us of the sum of our discussions over the next days, and I commit to putting the results of those discussions into practice, and making the Convention as active and effective as you, the Contracting Parties, want. And if I think you need a little encouragement, be sure I will encourage you!! So, I hope we will have really good, positive and forward-looking discussions, despite the odd problem or so.

On problems, I have especially to note the budget - in particular an income shortfall. The finance subgroup has looked at this issue and will be reporting to you on solutions. But although I cast this as a problem, I prefer always to see it as an opportunity! It is clear though, as I warm the Secretary General's seat, that our budget is not only less than we need, it is less than equivalent or even smaller MEAs have available to them. Ah-Ha! I hear you say, well, he is already talking like a Secretary General, asking for more resources. Well, I am, but I also understand we have to manage as responsibly as possible the resources we have allocated to us.

And this means we cannot necessarily do what the Contracting Parties seem to want, as expressed in the 46 decisions of COP8. And I will be telling you in coming months what we can do well and effectively, and what we simply cannot do. But one simple thing will help us greatly - that is for Contracting Parties to pay on time!! One stellar party has already paid for 2004, a shining example that I would urge others to follow. I know, from my own experience, however, that it is not always that simple in wrestling the funds from Treasury Departments. But paying as early as possible helps us to prevent running the Convention's activities on thin air and promises!!

I will be particularly interested in your observations on our work plan. I am certain it is comprehensive, but I am also certain it is very over-ambitious. While it certainly enables us to cover most eventualities, it also means that we have less focus than we should, and we are in danger of producing more documentation than results. I really welcome your candid observations on how you would like us manage this process, so that you have full understanding and ownership of what is going on, without yourselves or ourselves drowning in paper.

This takes us straight to our most critical discussions in the next days - COP9, its form and structure - and duration, as will be determined and reflected by the decision VIII.45 from Valencia. COP9 is a wonderful challenge - to have our first COP in what will be inevitably the continent of this century, full of challenges, yet ripe with possibilities - where our Convention can make a real difference in the race to alleviate poverty, by exploring how wise use can lift communities out of poverty and into the ecologically-based human communities this century needs.

Well this is all very well, but we need to be clear that passing 46 or more Resolutions is not necessarily going to achieve what we want. We need to use COP9 to boost confidence of governments and communities that they can make a difference to solving the environmental issues, so that we can empower people to manage and live in their environment in an effective and sustainable way. And we will surely be judged by how well we do this. But we will also need help from the global aid community to put on a high value COP, and ensure we can bring representatives of all our parties there.

We will have substantive discussions on all this - just let me say now that my clear view is that we need to use all the practicality that this Convention offers, without abandoning its principles, yet also without turning ourselves into simply another talk-fest, with little to show at the end. The Subgroup on Resolution VIII.45 from COP8 has had some discussions here, but those need to continue, actively over the next few months, as we develop the full programme for COP9, and the Subgroup will obviously need to interact well with the COP9 Subgroup.

Madame chair,

I would like to come back to the remarks I made earlier, concerning us being now in the 21st century. With the recognition of the wise use principles for wetlands as the flagship philosophy of the Convention we entered an entire new domain: the integration of the human and social dimension in environmental policies, where traditionally, only the naturalistic point of view mattered. The main theme of COP9 in Uganda will be around "Wetlands and poverty alleviation" and this issue is in perfect conjunction with the Convention's philosophy, providing still another tribute to the foresight of the Convention's drafters.

But this also means we can go further and broaden our focus in the coming decades. Wetlands are extremely important ecosystems for the conservation of biodiversity. But they also offer huge challenges for sustainable development. Water, the key element of wetlands functioning, is also the key factor for poverty alleviation and sustainable development. Since 1971 we have preserved water for birds. We have now the opportunity, for this new century, to be key actors in preserving this same water also for people. Climate change, poverty alleviation, waste management or more globally human well-being are some of the issues we will have an opportunity to deal with.

Wetlands play a key role in producing, protecting and especially purifying water supplies. While all these issues may seem to take our Convention too far away from its base, they are, in fact, just a broader point of view of the vital role of wetlands in the global biological system.

Given that the Commission for Sustainable Development has this theme for its upcoming meeting, I will be making sure we are adequately represented there. And I note with appreciation that the Government of Switzerland has suggested that interested governments start working together within the Ramsar framework to help address this most critical of all themes: Water for people: water for ecosystems.

With this in mind, let us use COP9 as a real turning point in the life of our Convention, to broaden its scope, to strengthen its undoubted technical excellence, and to strongly enhance its political visibility and vigour.

Well, colleagues all, we have much to discuss in the coming days, so I remind you that the secretariat is here to help you in any way we can - I wish you a most enjoyable and productive time - and I close my opening remarks here.

Thank you.

Note: This is the text of Dr Bridgewater's remarks as prepared in advance for the interpreters -- it is not a transcript of his remarks as actually delivered, though it's substantially the same.

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