Poor data, weak agencies hamstring environmental oversight

The first in an occasional series examining U.N. environmental management.

UNITED NATIONS -- The global environmental management system is in disarray.

Little is known about some basic indicators about the health of ecosystems because of a lack of standardized environmental statistics and incomplete information, U.N. insiders and independent auditors say. And even if its statistics were solid, they say, the United Nations' ability to act on them is not.

With the need for data growing as governments gird to battle global warming, revitalize agriculture in developing countries, provide safe drinking water and devise schemes to protect and rebuild depleted fisheries, information-gathering is getting worse, according to several interviews and audit reports.

For example, the latest fisheries report by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, or FAO, uses 2006 data. The time lag for data collection is growing, but experts say such long waits are not unusual.


"FAO is dealing with over 100 countries reporting data to them, so not all countries can get their data in by the Aug. 31 deadline," said Alan Lowther, a former FAO statistician who now works at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Even with the huge delay, fisheries stats are largely seen as sound. But many statistics from FAO and other U.N. agencies are becoming more unreliable. As fewer governments report agricultural data, FAO officials are forced to fill data gaps with their best scientific guesses. Speaking on background, U.N. officials say they have little confidence in the Rome-based agency's figures.

Officials also have a broad notion of the amount of fresh water on the planet. Oft-cited U.N. numbers on several countries' food production, land use and freshwater supplies are estimates from a range of sources.

The lack of systematic environmental accounting and spotty government reporting cast doubt on the accuracy of some of the world body's most widely cited reports, including the famous Human Development Report now being produced. Paris-based UNESCO is releasing a major report today on water using figures the United Nations' own statisticians have concerns about.

What the United Nations can do with such information is also being questioned. Environmental governance structures built over the past 30 years have created a patchwork of ad hoc projects directed by multiple agencies that do not often cooperate with each other and sometimes duplicate work.

Further complicating the picture, governments have created hundreds of environmental treaties managed by dozens of separate offices, with no central oversight. Enforcement of many of these agreements is weak or nonexistent because of funding constraints.

Multilateral action on pollution is plagued by "institutional fragmentation and specialization and the lack of a holistic approach to environmental issues," said Tadanori Inomata, an official with the United Nations' Joint Inspection Unit, in a presentation to the 25th meeting of the U.N. Environment Programme's governing council last month.

Aware of the situation, many officials are busy trying to halt the deterioration of what solid environmental and agricultural indicators they do have. Many are holding out hope that the round of population censuses in 2010 can be harnessed to provide a better handle on the situation and to help developing countries improve their data-gathering.

Nations are also discussing ways to streamline global environmental management. But thus far, there is no indication that the problem will be resolved soon.

No standardized data

The heart of the U.N. problem: a lack of a standardized set of environmental statistics that would allow governments to follow trends and compare conditions across borders.

The current problems stand in stark contrast to the system of population and economic indicators produced starting more than a half-century ago.

U.N. work on economic data-gathering goes back to 1946, and it has also inherited experience from the old League of Nations.

The U.N. Statistics Division also works closely with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and Eurostat, the European Union's statistics office, on developing a global picture. As a result, the United Nations regularly compiles statistics on global consumer price indices, industrial production, foreign exchange reserves and international trade, and the reliability of that data has allowed U.N. and other experts to track Third World development and produce fairly accurate economic forecasts for years.

Experts have been trying without success since the early 1980s to replicate that accomplishment in environmental statistics. Agencies handle data on waste and water from the developed world reasonably well, but tight budgets and weak capacity in developing countries mean information on even that narrow set of environmental topics is missing from most of the globe.

Improving environmental statistics was the top agenda item at the 40th session of the U.N. Statistical Commission held here recently, but that meeting ended without making much headway. Those involved say progress is getting held up by a push from European nations to prioritize climate statistics in any reporting that does occur.

But adding additional layers to the system could only make matters worse, experts say.

The United Nations still has no idea how many people have access to municipal waste services, for example. The Statistics Division has also tried for years to get accurate information on water infrastructure and wastewater treatment systems, with limited success.

While U.N. agencies may bear some blame for the mess, the problem starts with individual governments. FAO, in particular, suffers from a lack of reporting compliance, threatening the accuracy of agricultural data.

"If no official data are available, we are forced to estimate the data, taking into account weather conditions, general indications on the country situation and historical trends," said Nicolas Sakoff, a statistician at FAO. Sakoff said data trackers are also often forced to search the Internet for information.

An independent evaluation of FAO's information-collection operations last year found high levels of "imputation" -- guesswork -- being done, as officials in Rome were compelled to rely on nongovernmental organizations or other ad hoc sources of information to estimate global food production.

When calculating the global wheat crop in 2007, for example, data from 67 of 118 nations, including 70 percent of African countries, were "either imputed or came from semi-official sources" and not from government ministries, the audit found.

"The Independent Evaluation of FAO showed convincing anecdotal information that national statistical capacity for agricultural statistics has deteriorated over time," auditors concluded.

Production data for one of the world's most important crops, rice, could be in even worse shape. In 2007, annual rice production was estimated for 10 of 16 Asian nations surveyed, even though all Asian governments provided data to FAO in 2006. FAO says it still does not have up-to-date official figures from Japan, India and Bangladesh, three of the world's largest rice producers, suggesting that the 2008 rice crop numbers released by FAO recently could be seriously compromised.

"Our sources of information are multiple," said Concepción Calpe, the senior FAO economist responsible for monitoring global rice production. "We rely to a variable extent on government official forecasts, obtained through questionnaires, which the authorities fill with their anticipated level of production, trade and stocks, etc. However, we have to draw our own outlooks when these official figures are not available."

But the problem is not limited to the developing world. Canadian officials recently admitted their own struggles with environmental statistics. A system of decentralized data collection, with provinces leading the way, means the nation lacks good data on national water quality or accurate forest inventory, Statistics Canada said.

The investigation into FAO's problems found that some OECD members were not reporting. Several advanced states also have not responded to the most recent requests from the Statistics Division for information on access to water and waste management services. Among those not reporting: Australia, Switzerland and Spain.

Improving agricultural statistics is an urgent priority of aid and development agencies, as experts fear a coming relapse of last year's panic over rising food prices.

"There is still a need to analyze the deeper problems that have undermined food security," Sha Zukang, head of the U.N. Department of Economic and Social Affairs, told government statisticians. "Urgent action is required to seek a long-term solution to the food and energy crises by developing the necessary information frameworks."

Some good news

To be sure, there are bright spots in an otherwise bleak picture.

While systems for gathering timely environmental and agricultural statistics in the developing world are still woefully inadequate, the Statistical Commission concluded recently that the number of countries producing national water accounts is growing.

Credit for that success is given to the earlier establishment of general guidelines in the commission's "System of Environmental-Economic Accounting for Water" for starting work toward more formal recommendations on water statistics.

There is also hope that the 2010 round of census-taking will enhance agricultural information.

While agricultural censuses are expensive, more and more countries have been undertaking them in tandem with their decadal population counts. In Africa, for instance, at least 22 countries have done so since the 2000 census, up from 10 the previous decade.

But insiders say it will take the international community a very long time to develop the type of global architecture for environmental monitoring and protection that is anywhere close to the Bretton Woods system for managing the world economy.

Serious discussion on harmonizing land-use and land-cover statistics has only just begun, for instance, and most observers seriously doubt donors will offer more funding for improving Third World data gathering this year or next.

Undermining the Environment Programme

Few are optimistic, though, that efforts to improve data collection can overcome problems created by the decentralized, confusing and ad hoc system of global environmental governance that has evolved over more than 30 years.

Following a landmark meeting in Stockholm in 1972, the General Assembly created the U.N. Environment Programme, or UNEP. Member states initially charged the new agency with providing "general policy guidance for the direction and coordination of environmental programs."

But since UNEP's inception, governments have repeatedly taken steps that severely undermine the agency's ability to oversee environmental protections.

One impediment is the 500-odd multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs) that the world has signed since UNEP was created, 45 of which are global in scale. The list includes strong agreements like the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species and the Convention on Migratory Species but also obscure regional agreements like 2003 Convention on the Protection and Sustainable Development of the Carpathians, an Eastern European mountain range.

Although UNEP is relied upon heavily to negotiate these agreements, the agency has no authority to administer the vast majority of them. Most of the 500 treaties come with their own secretariats, each with a separate staff and budget.

Ongoing government cash-flow troubles, now made worse by a severe global economic recession, mean many of these proliferating MEA secretariats are poorly funded and have little ability to monitor compliance or take any possible enforcement actions when rules are broken. And under the terms of these agreements, better-funded organizations like UNEP or the U.N. Development Programme usually are not allowed to help with implementation.

Some well-known environmental treaties even conflict with each other. The audit by the Joint Inspection Unit, for instance, noted that use of some greenhouse gases like hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) is restricted by the Kyoto Protocol but simultaneously allowed in the Montreal Protocol as a substitute to gases that deplete the ozone layer.

And as eco-awareness has grown, other U.N. and global agencies have felt compelled to jump into the fray and undertake their own environmental initiatives.

The U.N. Development Programme recently announced one of the latest examples, a joint project with the International Maritime Organization to prevent the transfer of invasive species through ship ballast water. The World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the International Civil Aviation Organization, and dozens of other bodies and national aid offices have their own environmental initiatives.

Joint Inspection Unit inspector Inomata told the UNEP Governing Council in Nairobi, Kenya, that a thorough review of new environmental treaties should be undertaken each time to determine if a separate secretariat is truly necessary. He also advised Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to work with the General Assembly and set up "a clear understanding on the division of labor among development agencies, UNEP and the MEAs."

But work toward that end has stalled.

The General Assembly tried last year to pass a resolution that could have improved U.N. environmental management, but the effort collapsed over an all-too-familiar dispute: Developing nations demanded more money for programs, while wealthier nations called for better use of existing funds.

Said Lydia Swart, executive director of the New York-based Center for U.N. Reform Education, in assessing prospects for 2009: "It seems clear that no agreement on a resolution on strengthening international environmental governance could be reached, and the issue is likely to fade away."

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