SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Co-operaton) and Environment : An Overview

Dr. Madhab P. Gautam

Dr. Gautam is associated at T.U., also a member of Environment Protection Council, HMG/Nepal.


The first major international response to environmental degradation came in 1972 with the UN conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm, Sweden. The major achievements of this conference was to address global environmental issues and the establishment of United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) to deal with major environmental issues worldwide.

After 20 years of this conference, it was further stressed that the continuing deterioration of the state of the environment and the serious degradation of the global life support system, if allowed to continue, could disrupt the global ecological balance, jeopardize the life sustaining qualities of the earth and lead to a catastrophe. Two major conflicting views emerged for such a catastrophe at global fora. One camp says that poverty causes environmental destruction and that a crash program to bring western development to poor nations is the best way to save us all. Whereas another, a more radical camp says western style development is the main problem. Both developing and developed countries, however, came to the conclusion that hopes for sustained economic growth can be fulfilled only if the environment is considered as a major factor. As a matter of fact, the Stockholm conference focussed principally on environmental issues where as the 44th UN General Assembly decided to convene the UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in 1992 at Brazil, with particular emphasis on environmentally sound development, international trade and third world debt. This Earth Summit was in fact the biggest global forum to device strategies/measures to halt/reverse the effect of environmental degradation by promoting sustainable and environmentally sound development throughout the world.

In brief, the General Assembly resolution 44/228 specified nine major environmental issues (areas) in maintaining the quality of the earth environment and especially in achieving environmentally sound and sustainable development in all countries. The major environmental concerns are:

    a) Protection and management of land resources by inter alia, combating deforestation, desertification and drought;

    b) Conservation of biological diversity;

    c) Protection of the quality and supply of freshwater resources;

    d) Environmentally sound management of biotechnology;

    e) Environmentally sound management of wastes, particularly hazardous wastes and of toxic chemicals, as well as prevention of illegal international traffic in toxic and dangerous products and wastes;

    f) Protection of atmosphere by combating climate change, depletion of ozone layer and trans-boundary air pollution;

    g) Protection of the oceans and supply, including enclosed and semi-enclosed seas and of coastal areas and the protection, rational use and development of their living resources;

    h) Protection of human health conditions and improvement of the quality of life;

    i) Improvement of the living and working environment of the poor in urban slums and rural areas.

SAARC principles for UNCED

Prior to the forthcoming UNCED, the head of the state/government of the Third SAARC summit (Kathmandu: November, 1987) expressed their deep concern at the fast and continuing degradation of the environment. It was emphasized that natural disaster and environmental degradation, deforestation, desertification, pollution, climate change, bio-diversity loss etc. were the emerging issues of the SAARC countries - Nepal Bangladesh, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Maldives, India and Pakistan, The delegates were of the opinion that such issues were deeply rooted with the vicious circle of poverty, population explosion, unemployment and most importantly, the rapid impact and influence of western world.

Being fully aware of the contemporary threats of the environmental problems in the SAARC region and the emerging global environmental concerns, the Environmental Ministers of the region decided to meet at New Delhi, India, on April 8-9, 1997. The main concern of this meeting was to deliberate upon the issues related to the forthcoming UNCED. It was an opportune moment to review the existing socio-economic and environmental scenario, formulate SAARC Vision on Environment & Development, to draw upon the fundamental principle and strategies to eliminate the root causes of environmental degradation, and pollution, integrating environment and development in national plan/policy and programme of the relevant sectors, pursuing the path of sustainable development, regional support and co-operation from the both developed and developing countries. In this context the members state agreed to formulate a joint communiqu‚ guided by the following 8 point principles for UNCED.

1. Environmental protection cannot be isolated from the general issues of development and must be viewed as an integral part of development efforts. A global partnership should be forged which simultaneously seeks to protect the environment while addressing the development needs of the developing countries.

2. It is essential that widespread poverty in developing countries should be tackled head-on so as to break the vicious circle involving poverty, under-development and environmental degradation.

3. Developing countries are presently faced by a situation where protectionism is growing, the debt burden is increasing, terms of trade continue to deteriorate and reverse financial resource flows are taking place. It is essential that a supportive international economic climate be created, conducive to sustained economic growth and development, particularly in developing countries.

4. Each country has sovereign rights over the natural resources falling within its national jurisdiction.

5. Decisions regarding development strategies for sustainable development are a matter of national decision making. The role of international co-operation should be to support and supplement, and not supplant, national efforts.

6. The integration of environmental concerns into policies and programs concerning economic development should be carried out without introducing any conditionality in aid of development financing. It should also not be used as a pretext for erecting trade barriers.

7. Efforts must be made to rectify the present imbalance created by the developed countries that continue to use a huge and disproportionate share of the finite resources of the Earth and to undertake measures for providing an equitable share of its carrying capacity to the developing countries, enabling them to reach adequate levels of development.

8. The emission of pollutants, including the discharge of hazardous and toxic wastes, is occurring predominantly in the developed countries and these countries have, therefore, the prime responsibility for taking corrective action.

This first Environment Minister s Meeting emphasized the need for the provision of adequate, new and additional funds with distinct funding mechanism for the implementation of Agenda-21, transfer of technology on preferential, non-commercial and concessional terms. The meeting pointed out that the developing countries are not in position to bear the burden of acquiring new environmentally sound technology. The delegates further reiterated the fact that the developed countries are responsible for excessive emission of green house gases and must take immediate action to stabilize and reduce such emission. It was also pointed out that developing countries also require full scientific, technical and financial resources to cope with the adverse impact of climate change. The ministers believed that SAARC countries are rich in bio-diversity and many significant efforts have also seen made towards preventing deforestation and carrying out large scale forestry program. In the meantime, the member states appealed to the international community and regional agencies of United Nations to play an active role in implementing Agenda-21.

Common SAARC Position on Environment

After 5 years of UNCED, a meeting of the SAARC Environment Ministers was again held in New Delhi, India, from April 2-3, 1997. The mission of this meeting was to prepare a Common SAARC Position in the implementation of UNCED Agenda 21. The heads of the state/government decided to present a common SAARC position in Agenda 21 during the United Nations General Assembly Session to be held on June 1997. The member states were of the opinion that there was a slow fulfillment of the commitments of the developed nations on important issues like increased, adequate and predictable flow of financial resources, transfer of eco-friendly technologies as well as inadequate assistance to enhance the capacity to address environmental issues of developing countries. One of the strategies of the Delhi meeting was to find out ways and means for the implementation of Agenda-21 and also to create a regional framework/approach within the member states.

The New Delhi declaration on Agenda-21 re-addressed the fact that poverty and direct dependence on natural resources are the main contributing factors to environmental deterioration in the region which has low levels of industrialization, ill health, illiteracy, malnutrition, inadequate housing and insufficient infrastructure service facilities. Some of the major decisions adopted in this meeting are reflected in the table below.

It was emphasized that increased regional co-operation is needed to promote effective action on the Common SAARC Position. Some of the issues seeking regional/global support include: establishing effective environment management infra structure, developing common framework/approach and working out implimentable proposals on bio-diversity, drafting of an understanding in trans-boundary movement of hazardous chemical/nuclear wastes in member countries and promoting regional camps, activities and program of school children in creating awareness in environment.

SAARC Environmental Action Plan

In pursuance of the Ninth SAARC summit and at the invitation of the Maldives (Male, May 12- 14, 1997), the Third Environment Minister s Meeting (Male: 15-16 October, 1997) was devoted to review two SAARC Regional Studies entitled Causes and Consequences of Natural Disasters and Protection and Preservation of Environment and the Green House Effects and its impacts on the Region . The primary responsibility of this meeting was to assess the major environmental concerns of the region and to workout essential procedures for implementation of recommendations contained in these reports. The main thrust of this meeting were :

1. Preparation of a SAARC Plan of Action on Environment through detailed assessment of the two SAARC Studies.

2. Establishment of regional Institutions such as SAARC Forestry Centre and SAARC Coastal Zone Management Center.

3. Capacity building, institutional networking, establishing group of eminent experts and scientists in the field of environment.

4. Formation of Common SAARC Position on climate change and presentation of their position at the Third Meeting of the Conference of Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) held at Kyoto, Japan, December, 1997. The Government of the Republic of Maldives was requested to present the SAARC position in this meeting.

It is important to note that the objective of the Action Plan was intended to address regional environmental concerns through in-depth review of the member states, to enhance the environmental management capabilities of the region and was aimed towards implementation though co-ordinated national and regional activities. In this context, strategies and measures for some priority areas were identified for immediate action.

Some of the decisions adopted during the Third Environment Ministers Meeting were:

1. Preparation and submission of the National Action Plan to the SAARC Secretariat before July, 1998.

2. Preparation and submission of National State of Environment Report (SoER) as per the prescribed format of SoER by the end of 1998.

3. Designation of the national nodal points on Water Resources Management by respective countries.

4. Identification of the existing Institutions and the modalities to operate SAARC Centres.

5. Preparation and submission of report on existing environmental standard with particular emphasis on pollution control facilitated by the Technical Committee on Environment & Meteorology.

The Third Technical Committee Meeting on Environment and Meteorology

Prior to the I0th SAARC Summit (Colombo : July 29-31, 1998) and the Fourth SAARC Environmental Ministers Conference, (Colombo : October 30-November 01, 1998), the Third Technical Committee Meeting on Environment and Meteorology was held at SAARC Secretariat, Kathmandu from October 14-16, 1998).

The main responsibility of this meeting was to review the SAARC Plan of Action on Environment, consider modalities, and suggest steps for effective implementation of the Action Plan and to carry forward process of co-operation among member states on environmental issues.

The recommendations of this meeting to the 10th SAARC summit and the 4th Environmental Meeting, Colombo, 1998 were:

Fourth SAARC Environment Conference

The Action Plan on Environment adopted at the Third Meeting of Environment Ministers in Male and its endorsement at the Tenth SAARC summit (Colombo : July 29-31, 1998) was a milestone.

The heads of the States or Governments called for the effective and early implementation of the Action Plan and also committed to prepare National Action Plans and State of the Environmental Reports before the end of 1998. In response to the decision of the 10th SAARC summit, the Fourth Environment Minister s conference was held in Colombo in October 30- November 01, 1998. It is important to note that this summit provided full authority to Environmental Ministers for any specific measures required for SAARC to further strengthen cooperation on environmental issues with other international or regional organizations engaged in similar field. The major decisions of this conference are:


It is experienced that the Earth Summit has led SAARC countries towards the development of its own vision and principles for the protection, restoration and enhancement for the environment. The adoption of the SAARC principles and formulation of strategies to the implementation of SAARC action Plan on Environment are the collective undertakings of the members states towards resolving the emerging environment issues at national and regional level.

Despite the worldwide attention to the implementation of Agenda-21, the member States could not draw any significant attention to this issue until 1997. However, the SAARC Plan of Action on Environment has recently defined areas of activities, identified immediate issues to be addressed urgently and worked out mechanism for implementation, specially after the Male conference.

At present the major challenges in materializing the Action Plan on Environment are based upon the critical review and effective follow-up of the following aspects.

Issues          Decision                                        Host Country    Date
Bio-diversity   Expert Group Meeting on a common                Sri Lanka       May, 1999
                approach for access to genetic
                resources and working out implementable

Hazardous       Expert Group Meeting on trans-boundary          Switzerland     April, 1999
Waste           movement of hazardous wastes.   

Establishing    Expert Group Meeting for establishment          India           March, 1999
Environmental   of effective information networking 
Management      mechanism for the protection and 
Infrastructure  preservation of environment.     

Issues          Activities                                      Remarks
Bio-diversity   Collection of basic information within SAARC    Expert Group Meeting to be held 
                region and the establishment of co-operative    in Srilanka can direct to formulate 
                framework for the exchange of genetic           a common framework for member states.
                resources, traditional knowledge and scientific
                and technological development     

SAARC Forestry  Member states are in process of updating the    Venue of establishment of such centre 
Centre          list of forestry institutions and will submit   is yet undecided.
                the list to SAARC secretariat. 

Climate change  a) Workshop on climate change will be           Funded by GEF
                organised by the Government of Maldives.

                b) A common SAARC position on climate change
                was prepared and presented at Kyoto and
                Buenos Aires.  

SAARC Coastal   Maldives is conducting the feasibility study    Maldives will submit the study to SAARC 
Zone Management and holding consultations with relevant         secretariat for circulation to member 
Centre          agencies and also conducting Expert Group       states soon.
                Meeting to consider this study.     

Regional Treaty The Third Technical committee on Environment    Feasibility on regional treaty will be 
on Environment  and Meteorology examined the list of            considered after the preparation of SAARC
                international conventions and instruments.      State of the Environment Report.
                The Fourth Environment Ministers Meeting
                observed that most international conventions
                had been recently negotiated.