Written by Gozde Saral
Cities are important social-ecological systems all around the world. As we can see from the IPAT formula, increasing population and increasing consumption will create a less sustainable society. However, with the increasing knowledge and technological improvements and innovations in development, we can manage to be on a sustainable path and achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Participation of civil society, public and private sectors, research institutes and universities in overcoming problems is a critical tool. There are many projects where all these institutions are coming together to create solutions for sustainable development in cities and achieve the SDG number 11 (“sustainable cities and communities”, i.e. Green Blue Cities, SubUrbanLab, RemoUrban).
One of the common problems most of the cities, all around the world, are experiencing is water pollution. Rivers or lakes are polluted by agriculture, industry or residential waste. How to preserve the natural resources and biodiversity while cities are still able to maintain development and industrialization is one of the key factors for economic growth. The solution seems to be the participatory action which involves cooperation of local authorities, universities and civil societies.
Let’s take a look at the Aire River in Geneva canton. Ten years ago, there was a big pollution problem in this river due to agriculture, industry and residential areas. In addition to that, due to a badly planned canal, the threat of flooding was another issue. How did the Aire River Renaturation Program become successful? The participatory action took role, which involved cooperation of local authorities, universities and civil society. The goal was to renature the river by taking the flow out of the canal and restoring and increasing the space of the riverbed (Fig 1). Risk management was a part of the planning by creating planned flood regions (Fig 2), and using technology and engineering to prevent flooding of residential and agricultural regions.
At the local level, we see that the participatory action is important to achieve the SDGs. For example, the Geneva Environment Network (GEN), led by United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), is bringing together a hundred organizations/offices and programmes which includes intergovernmental organizations, NGOs and business organizations, universities and local authorities. GEN, since the date it was established in 1999, is dealing with environmental-related, social and economic issues such as climate change, disaster management, biodiversity, chemicals, human rights and also promoting cooperation between organizations by bringing them together under the same roof (i.e., Geneva Water Networking Platform). The coordinator of GEN, Diana Rizzolio, states that the biggest value and main goal of the network is to connect the organizations which are dealing with similar issues and create collaborations in order to find solutions and achieve the SDGs.
At a global level, working for sustainable development in underdeveloped and developing countries is more complicated. Especially in the war-torn countries, unsustainable use of natural resources is often the cause of violence (Table 1). The main problems people are facing in these countries are related to land use, poverty and access to water. When the institutions and governments are weak, the problem rising from conflicts on natural resources unfortunately cannot be solved peacefully and this also triggers violence. In such places, environmental and natural resources can in fact be called victims of war, just like people. Pauliina Upla, responsible for the Peace building programme in UNEP-Post-Conflict and Disaster Management Branch (PCDMB), indicates that disasters and conflicts are the priority fields and since 2008, and supporting those fragile states and countries becomes more and more important. Natural resources and the environment are valuable for post-conflict peacebuilding processes (from peace making, to peace keeping and peace building) and supporting economic recovery. Achieving the SDG goal number 16 (“Peace and Justice”) with a peacebuilding process, we can stop the conflicts rising from unsustainable use of natural sources and address the poverty problems (goal number 1) and economic growth (goal number 8).
Another example of unsustainable land use is deforestation, which involves a decrease in the forestry area and forest degradation. Forests, as ecosystems, are one of the major fields that need to be addressed for SDGs, especially for the goal number 13: (“climate action”) and the goal number 15 (“Life on Land”). United Nations – Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (UN-REDD) Programme aims “to reduce forest emissions and enhance carbon stocks in forests while contributing to national sustainable development” . 64 partner countries across Africa, Asia-Pacific, Latin America and the Caribbean are collaborating to protect many rain forests, which are vital for life on Earth. UN-REDD Technical Advisor, Wahida Patwa, states that this program is national government based, so the connection with only local governments or NGOs is not enough. The success of the program requires a national strategy. On the other hand, corruption in national governments and lack of knowledge and tools in the national institutions are the main problems that UN-REDD is facing.