Tag Archives: UNEP – United Nations Environment Programme

Lake Urmia in the northwestern corner of Iran is one of the largest permanent hypersaline lakes in the world and the largest lake in the Middle East (1,2,3). It extends as much as 140 km from north to south and is as wide as 85 km east to west during high water periods (4). The lake was declared a Wetland of International Importance by the Ramsar Convention in 1971 and designated a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 1976 (5,6). The lake itself is home to a unique brine shrimp species, Artemia urmiana, and along with the surrounding wetlands and upland habitat, it supports many species of reptiles, amphibians and mammals. Lake Urmia provides very important seasonal habitat for many species of migrating birds. Around 200 species of birds have been documented on and surrounding the lake including pelicans, egrets, ducks, and flamingos (7). The watershed of the lake is an important agricultural region with a population of around 6.4 million people; an estimated 76 million people live within a radius of 500 km (8).

This photo along the lake’s shoreline shows the salt left behind as the lake retreats. Photo Source: Wikipedia

The lake’s surface area has been estimated to have been as large as 6 100 km² but since 1995 it has generally been declining (9) and was estimated from satellite data to be only 2 366 km² in August of 2011 (Landsat data). The decline is generally blamed on a combination of drought, increased water diversion for irrigated agriculture within the lake’s watershed and mismanagement (2,9,10,1). In addition, a causeway has been built across the lake with only a 1 500 m gap for water to move between the northern and southern halves of the lake (9). It has been suggested that this has decreased circulation within the lake and altered the pattern of water chemistry; however evidence suggests that the impact of the causeway on the uniformity of water chemistry in the lake has been minimal (11,9,10,12). The unfolding ecological disaster threatens to leave much of the lake bed a salt-covered wasteland. Scientists have warned that continued decline would lead to increased salinity, collapse of the lake’s food chain and ecosystem, loss of wetland habitat, wind blown “salt-storms,” alteration of local climate and serious negative impacts on local agriculture and livelihoods as well as regional health (10,9,1,13).

Thousands of protesters took to the streets in the cities of Tabriz and Urmia in late August and early September 2011 saying that authorities have done too little to save the lake (14,15,16). Those around the lake fear a fate similar to that of the population surrounding the nearby Aral Sea, which has dried up over the past several decades. Disappearance of the Aral Sea has been an environmental disaster affecting people throughout the region with windblown salt-storms. The population surrounding Lake Urmia is much denser putting more people at risk of impact.

A Unique Lake

Lake Urmia is an endorheic or terminal lake meaning that water leaves the lake only by evaporation. As is generally the case, this leads to a saltwater body and in the case of Lake Urmia, salinity is quite high. The lake has dramatically decreased in volume over the past decade-and-a-half, further concentrating salts in the lake, raising salinity to more than 300 g/L (9) or 8 times as salty as typical seawater. Aquatic biodiversity is limited by the lake’s salinity and Lake Urmia does not support any fish or mollusk species and no plants other than phytoplankton within the lake (17,18,19,12). Wetlands surrounding the lake support a variety of salt tolerant plant species (19). There is significant phytoplankton growth, with reports of some dense algae blooms occurring during years with low salinity (9). The most significant aquatic biota in the lake is a brine shrimp species, Artemia urmiana. This macro-zooplankton species is the key link in the lake’s food chain, consuming algae and in turn being consumed by several bird species including the Lake’s migratory flamingo population (19). The diverse bird population of Lake Urmia and its associated wetlands was documented in a series of surveys in the 1970s which recorded an impressive list of species (7).

A Rapid Decline

Satellite altimeter data measured the lake’s level in 1995 to be at its highest level of any time in the past 40 years (Figure 1) (21,4). This is in agreement with Hassanzadeh and others (2011) who state a measured water level of roughly 1 278 m above sea level for the same time. Both measures show a steady decline from that year forward with the most recent satellite altimeter data indicating a drop of approximately 7 metres between 1995 and 2011 (21).

Figure 1: Overlaying multiple records of the lake’s surface elevation shows generally good agreement. These data suggest that sometime around 2008, Lake Urmia declined below any point in the past 100 years of recorded lake levels and well below the long term average.

Because the lake is relatively shallow, this decline in water level translates to an equally dramatic decline in surface area (Figures 2 & 3). Satellite imagery extending back to the early 1960s shows the lake’s area to have been somewhat smaller in 1963, growing to almost 6 000 km² in 1969, and then remaining generally stable from the late 1960s to the mid-1990s. Since peaking in the mid-1990s, surface area has generally declined quite rapidly despite regular seasonal variation and a brief expansion during a wet period in the early 2000s.

Figure 2: Surface area estimated from Landsat satellite imagery.

Variability of the lake prior to the early 1960s does not appear to have been widely studied, however, a generalized plot of lake levels dating back to the early 1900s shows only one brief period in 1937 where the lake declined to below 1 273 m above sea level, and then for less than one year (Figure 1) (10). The recent decline reached 1 273 m above sea level in 2008 and, based on satellite images of surface area, the trend has continued through seasonal ups and downs to where current water levels appear to be approaching 1.5 metres lower than at any time in over 100 years (21,22).

Source: 1963 Image: ARGON data from USGS; 1969 image: Corona data from USGS, visualization by UNEP GRID Sioux Falls; 1972-2011 images: landsat data, 2011 image: visualization by UNEP GRID Sioux Falls.

Causes of the Decline

Because Lake Urmia is a terminal lake with no significant water outflow the only way water leaves the lake is by evaporation. Therefore, if the lake declines it is either by increased evaporation or a decrease in water coming into the system. The Zarrineh Rood River is the largest of the thirteen main rivers discharging into Lake Urmia which are the source of the majority of the Lake’s water budget (18,9). Additional input comes from rainfall directly over the lake, floodwater from the immediate watershed and a very small fraction from groundwater flow (9,18).

Figure 4: The number of dams (existing, under construction and under study) within the lake’s basin suggest an increase in diversion of surface water beyond current levels which already appear to be unsustainable. Source: Hassanzadeh and others (2011), redrawn by UNEP GRID Sioux Falls

A study modeling the relative influence of various factors on the decline of Lake Urmia found that 65 per cent of the decline was from changes in inflow caused by climate change and diversion of surface water for upstream use, with the remaining balance due to construction of dams (25%) and decreased precipitation over the lake itself (10%) (2). Several other studies also suggest that this diversion of water has been the one of the most, if not the most, significant cause of Lake Urmia’s decline with other contributing causes being reduced precipitation, warmer temperatures and groundwater abstraction (9,23,13,24).

The average annual rainfall within the basin from 1967 to 2006 was 235 mm, with variation between about 440 mm in 1968 to less than 150 mm in 2000 (2). Annual rainfall was 40 mm less on average in the basin for the last decade of that period (1997-2006) than it had been for the first 30 years (1967-1996) (2). The arid to semi-arid climate of the basin means that agriculture is largely dependent on irrigation. The decrease in precipitation along with declining groundwater levels in this area (25,1) and a growing population of 6.5 million people within the watershed (8) will likely exert increasing pressure to continue diverting streamflow within the basin before it reaches Lake Urmia.

Serious Impacts

Reduced water volume in the lake has already concentrated the existing salts to 300 g/L or higher in many locations. Sodium chloride concentrations much over 320 g/L are believed to be fatal to the lake’s brine shrimp. Optimal conditions for Artemia urmiana appear to be at salt concentrations well under 200 g/L and as salinity rises much above this level, there is a measured negative impact on growth rate, reproduction and mortality (27,19,26). Based on in situ observations of the brine shrimp populations under varying salinities in Lake Urmia, it has been suggested that a concentration of 240 g/L or less would be required to sustain a viable population (19).

Figure 5: The land left behind as the lake retreats is covered with salt deposits that make it unusable for agriculture. The causeway across the lake can be seen in the lower right of the image.

The lake’s brine shrimp are the sole link between the primary production of the lake’s algae and the diverse migratory bird population which feeds on these shrimp (19,1,27). Because the brine shrimp occupy this crucial link in the ecosystem their demise would translate into the likely loss of many of Lake Urmia’s migratory bird populations and affect the entire ecosystem’s sustainability (19,10). Any current or future tourist trade focused on these bird populations would likely also decline dramatically.

As lake levels decline, the exposed lakebed is left with a covering of salts, primarily sodium chloride, making a great salty desert on much of the 400 km² of lost surface area (Figure 5) (10). These salt flats will not support agriculture and inhibit growth of most natural vegetation. The salts are also susceptible to blowing and will likely create “salt-storms” like the ones that have resulted from the drying of the Aral Sea, located 1 200 km to the northeast of Lake Urmia (10). Blowing salts from the Aral Sea have been linked to vegetation-mortality in some cases or, more frequently, reduced vegetation growth, reduced crop yields, ill effects on wild and domestic animals, respiratory illness, eye problems, and throat and esophageal cancer (28). Based on the experience of the Aral Sea salt storms, it is likely that many of the tens of millions of people who live within a few hundred kilometres of the lake will be close enough to experience the impact of these salt storms (28).

Increasing water demand and decreasing water supply

Agriculture surrounding the lake relies on irrigation with groundwater and surface water supplies, which are also being pressured by increasing demand for domestic supply (2). There is considerable evidence that groundwater resources are already being exploited at rates faster than aquifer recharge in the area of the Lake Urmia watershed (25,1). Surface water flows are being diverted for use at rates which do not allow adequate inflow to Lake Urmia to maintain the lake’s current level (2,9,23,13). Water use within the Lake Urmia basin at current rates is unsustainable without loss of the lake, and the consequent environmental damage as well as damage to the surrounding population and agriculture. In very simple terms, Lake Urmia needs more water coming in—either from inside or from outside the basin—to avoid an environmental tragedy.

Figure 6: Two other lakes of similar size—Lake Sevan and Lake Van—and each less than 200 km from Urmia do not show the dramatic change apparent in Lake Urmia from 2001 to 2011. Both of these lakes are much deeper and thus generally less susceptible to rapid loss of surface area due to decreased inflow. Lake Urmia, being the shallowest of the three, has responded relatively quickly to the diversion of streamflow by the many dams built in the Urmia basin. Source: Modis Data from NASA, visualization by UNEP GRID Sioux Falls

Possible Actions

The two principal approaches to the problem are to adjust water allocation within the basin to allow an adequate environmental flow for sustaining Lake Urmia and/or to import water from outside the basin which would increase water levels and dilute salinity within the lake.

Reducing the amount of water diverted for agriculture, domestic and industrial use, or at least curtailing the growth in these water uses, may help stop or slow the decline of Lake Urmia (2). Abbaspour and Nazaridoust (2007) have produced an estimate of inflow required to maintain the lake. They estimate that an annual volume of 3 085 million cubic metres would be the ecological water requirement of Lake Urmia which would “keep the ecological functions of the lake sustainable” and allow the survival of a viable Artemia urmiana population. Another study estimates the needed maintenance volume to be in the same range, at between 2 600 and 4 200 million cubic metres per year, but also points out that larger inflow would be required to accelerate the recovery during an initial period of several years (10). The problem with this solution is the heavy reliance of the region’s agriculture on surface flow for irrigation water. Some water could be saved through increased efficiencies and improved management (2). However, with a growing population, continuing dam and irrigation development and especially if recent trends in rainfall and temperature continue, this will likely prove to be unpopular, impractical and—on its own—an inadequate solution (10,2).

The causeway and bridge built across Lake Urmia was completed in November 2008. There is concern that it inhibits circulation within the lake and may exacerbate environmental issues caused by the lower water levels. Photo Source: Wikipedia

The other widely suggested solution is to divert water from elsewhere to make up for the lost water volume no longer reaching the lake. A few possible sources have been put forward including the Zab River (9), the Aras River and the Caspian Sea. Inter-basin transfer of water may be the solution which holds the most promise of rescuing Lake Urmia, due to the large volume of water that would be needed. In the case of the Caspian Sea however, the distance of the proposed transfer route is around 300 km and the cost has been estimated at around 4 to 5.5 billion US $ (10). In addition, the timeframe for completing such a project has been estimated to be around 5 years and even the most aggressive rates of transfer would take an additional year to restore lake level to what it was in 2003 (10). Finally, transfer from the Caspian Sea would require negotiated agreements with the other countries which border the sea. So far talks have been unsuccessful in reaching an accord (29). While transfers from other river basins in the region could be less time consuming and expensive the total volume of water available would be limited, and by some accounts would be inadequate (10). The relatively smaller potential volume would also mean a greater possibility that transfers could impact the source basins negatively. The Zab River Basin is located in Turkey and Iraq and would require cooperation of those two countries. The Aras River Basin is split roughly in half between Iran and Azerbaijan. News reports suggest that talks have been initiated between the two countries regarding the use of Aras water for transfer to Lake Urmia (30).

Another strategy for bringing additional water into the basin is cloud seeding—attempting to increase precipitation by dispersing substances into clouds (10). Some projects are “under study and operation” (2), however cloud seeding in general is controversial and its impact limited (31,32) making this a partial and uncertain solution at best.

Main findings and implications

Lake Urmia’s water level has rapidly declined since the mid-1990s after having remained relatively stable over the 30 prior years. Construction of dams and diversion of surface water for agriculture, along with reduced precipitation and warmer temperatures over the basin, and to a lesser extent reduced inflow of groundwater are generally accepted as the causes (9,2,13). Reduced water volume concentrates the salts in the lake making it too saline for the brine shrimp which—being near the bottom of the simple food chain—support the very diverse bird population for which the lake provides important habitat. The surrounding brackish wetlands with a productive and diverse plant population will also dry up under current trends and conditions. As the lake retreats from its original shoreline it leaves a layer of salt—primarily sodium chloride—which leaves the land unusable for agriculture and threatens to unleash damaging storms of wind-blown salt on the surrounding area. The lake’s increasing salinity has reached near saturation at over 300 g/L and threatens to decimate the lake’s brine shrimp population which is a key link in the ecology of the lake and surrounding wetlands. While effective integrated water management is called for by many, there are no easy answers. Water conservation within the basin might provide some relief. However, finding the volume of water needed to restore the lake, without going outside the watershed, would probably require allocating water away from important areas of irrigated agriculture. Water transfer from the Caspian Sea would be very expensive and time consuming and may come too late to avert damage to the ecosystem by the historically low water levels and high salinity that are already occurring. Diverting water from neighboring watersheds would be less costly and time consuming but also has some serious challenges. A comprehensive integrated water management plan would take all elements of the basin’s water budget into account, balancing demands for irrigation, ecosystem preservation, social and human impact and water quality as well as operating within the national and regional political realities.

Prepared at UNEP-GRID Sioux Falls by Bruce Pengra with the invaluable input of Vahid Garousi PhD, PEng.-University of Calgary, Aref Seyyed Najafi, PhD-University of Calgary and Azar Samadi-Energy Consultant, Calgary Canada


1. Zarghami, M. (2011). Effective watershed management; Case study of Urmia Lake, Iran. Lake and Reservoir Management, 27(1), 87-94. doi: 10.1080/07438141.2010.541327.

2. Hassanzadeh, E., Zarghami, M., Hassanzadeh, Y. (2011). Determining the Main Factors in Declining the Urmia Lake Level by Using System Dynamics Modeling. Water Resources Management, 26(1), 129-145. doi: 10.1007/s11269-011-9909-8.

3. Karbassi, A., Bidhendi, G., Pejman, A., Bidhendi, M. (2010). Environmental impacts of desalination on the ecology of Lake Urmia. Journal of Great Lakes Research, 36(3), 419-424. doi: 10.1016/j.jglr.2010.06.004.

4. Jalili, S., Kirchner, I., Livingstone, D., Morid, S. (2011). The influence of large-scale atmospheric circulation weather types on variations in the water level of Lake Urmia, Iran. [10.1002/joc.2422]. International Journal of Climatology, n/a-n/a.

5. Ramsar (no date). Ramsar Site List. Accessed 24 January 24, 2012 at:

6. UNESCO (no date). UNESCO-MAB Biosphere Reserves Directory. 24 January 24, 2012 at:

7. Scott, D. (2001). The Birds of Lake Orumiyeh and Adjacent Wetlands, Islamic Republic of Iran – Results of Surveys carried out by the Ornithology Unit of the Department of the Environment in the 1970s. Accessed 24 January 2012 at:

8. SEDAC (2010). Gridded Population of the World: Future Estimates. Socioeconomic Data and Applications Center (SEDAC); collaboration with CIESIN, UN-FAO, CIAT. Accessed December 14, 2011 at:

9. Eimanifar, A. and Mohebbi, F. (2007). Urmia Lake (Northwest Iran): a brief review. Saline Systems, 3, 5. doi: 10.1186/1746-1448-3-5.

10. Golabian, H. (2010). Urumia Lake: Hydro-Ecological Stabilization and Permanence Macro-engineering Seawater in Unique Environments (pp. 365-397). Berlin: Springer-Verlag. doi: 10.1007/978-3-642-14779-1_18.

11. Zeinoddini, M., Tofighi, M., Vafaee, F. (2009). Evaluation of dike-type causeway impacts on the flow and salinity regimes in Urmia Lake, Iran. Journal of Great Lakes Research, 35(1), 13-22. doi: 10.1016/j.jglr.2008.08.001.

12. Alipour, S. (2006). Hydrogeochemistry of seasonal variation of Urmia Salt Lake, Iran. Saline Systems, 2, 9. doi: 10.1186/1746-1448-2-9

13. Hoseinpour, M., Fakheri Fard, A., Naghili, R. (2010). Death Of Urmia Lake, a Silent Disaster Investigating Causes, Results and Solutions of Urmia Lake drying. Paper presented at the 1st International Applied Geological Congress, Department of Geology, Islamic Azad University, Islamic Azad University – Mashad Branch, Iran.

14. Dehghan, S. (2011). “Iranian greens fear disaster as Lake Orumieh shrinks,” The Guardian 5 September 2011. Accessed February 8, 2012 at:

15. Mackey, R. (2011). “Protests in Iran Over Disappearing Lake,” The Lede / NYTimes 30 August 2011. Accessed February 8, 2012 at:

16. Euronews (2011). “Dozens arrested in Iran over lake protest” Euronews 11 August 2011. Accessed February 8, 2012 at:

17. Ramsar (1997). Ramsar Information Sheet – Lake Oroomiyeh. Accessed 24 January 2012 at:

18. Ghaheri, M., Baghal-Vayjooee, M., Naziri, J. (1999). Lake Urmia, Iran: A summary review. International Journal of Salt Lake Research, 8, 19-22.

19. Abbaspour, M. and Nazaridoust, A. (2007). Determination of environmental water requirements of Lake Urmia, Iran: an ecological approach. International Journal of Environmental Studies, 64(2), 161-169. doi: 10.1080/00207230701238416.

20. Asri, Y. and Ghorbanli, M. (1997). The halophilous vegetation of the Orumieh lake salt marshes, NW. Iran. Plant Ecology, 132, 155-170.

21. PECAD (no date). USDA/FAS/OGA and NASA Global Agriculture Monitoring (GLAM) Project. Lake and reservoir surface height variations from the USDA’s Global Reservoir and Lake (GRLM) web site at: Altimetric lake level time-series variations from the Topex/Poseidon, Jason-1, Jason-2/OSTM, and Geosat Follow-On (GFO) missions.

22. MODIS (no date). MODIS Satellite Data acquired from NASA Lance MODIS website at:

23. Reveshty, M. and Maruyama, Y. (2010). Study of Uremia Lake Level Fluctuations and Predict Probable Changes Using Multi-Temporal Satellite Images and Ground Truth Data Period (1976-2010). Paper presented at the Map Asia 2010 and ISG 2010, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

24. Ahmadi, R., Mohebbi, F., Hagigi, P., Esmailly, L., Salmanzadeh, R. (2011). Macro-invertebrates in the Wetlands ofthe Zarrineh estuary at the south of Urmia Lake. International Journal of Environmental Restoration, 5(4), 1047-1051.

25. Wada, Y., van Beek, L., van Kempen, C., Reckman, J., Vasak, S., Bierkens, M. (2010). Global depletion of groundwater resources. Geophysical Research Letters, 37(20). doi: 10.1029/2010gl044571.

26. Agh, N., van Stappen, G., Bossier, P., Sepehri, H., Lotfi, V., Razavi Rouhani, S., Sorgeloos, P. (2008). Effects of Salinity on Survival, Growth, Reproductive and Life Span Characteristics of Artemia Populations from Urmia Lake and Neighboring Lagoons. Pakistan Journal of Biological Sciences, 11(2), 164-172.

27. Dahesht Esmaeili, L., Negarestan, H., Eimanifar, A., Mohebbi, F. and Ahmadi, R. (2010). The fluctuations of physicochemical factors and phytoplankton populations of Urmia Lake, Iran. Iranian Journal of Fisheries Sciences, 9(3), 368-381.

28. Micklin, P. (2007). The Aral Sea Disaster. Annual Review of Earth and Planetary Sciences, 35(1), 47-72. doi: 10.1146/

29. Āqāyī, B. (2003). The law & politics of the Caspian Sea in the twenty-first century: the positions and views of Russia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, with special reference to Iran. Bethesda, Md, Ibex Publishers.

30. Djafarov, T. (2011). “Water transfer of Araz River to Lake Urmia is discussed between Iran and Azerbaijan” Trend News Agency 26 December 2011. Accessed February 8, 2012 at:

31. Morrison, A., Siems, S., Manton, M., Nazarov, A. (2009). On the Analysis of a Cloud Seeding Dataset over Tasmania. Journal of Applied Meteorology and Climatology, 48(6), 1267-1280. doi: 10.1175/2008jamc2068.1.

32. Levin, Z., Halfon, N., Alpert, P. (2010). Reassessment of rain enhancement experiments and operations in Israel including synoptic considerations. Atmospheric Research, 97(4), 513-525. doi: 10.1016/j.atmosres.2010.06.011.

Source: UNEP – United Nations Environment Programme



A group of the world’s leading scientists and experts in sustainable development today called for urgent changes to policies and institutions to enable humanity to tackle environmental crises and improve human wellbeing.
The group – all past winners of the Blue Planet Prize – have gathered in London to finalise a paper that will be launched at the UN Environment Programme’s Governing Council meeting in Nairobi on 20-22 February.

In a press briefing today at the International Institute for Environment and Development, co- author Bob Watson unveiled the paper’s main conclusions and recommendations.

The paper will emphasise transformational solutions to key environment and development challenges. It highlights the policies, technologies and behaviour changes required to protect the local, regional and global environment, stimulate the economy and enhance the livelihoods of the poor.

The paper Environmental and Development Challenges: The imperative to act comes ahead of the Rio+20 conference in Brazil in June, which marks the 20th anniversary of the historic UN Conference on Environment and Development (Rio Earth Summit).

“The challenges facing the world today need to be addressed immediately if we are to solve the problem of climate change, loss of biodiversity and poverty,” says Bob Watson, who is the Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK government’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), a Blue Planet Prize winner in 2010 and a co-author of the new paper.

Achim Steiner, UN Under-Secretary General and UNEP Executive Director, said:

“The paper by the Blue Planet laureates will challenge governments and society as a whole to act to limit human-induced climate change, the loss of biodiversity and the degradation of ecosystem services in order to ensure food, water energy and human security. I would like to thank Professor Watson and colleagues for eloquently articulating their vision on how key development challenges can be addressed, emphasizing solutions; the policies, technologies and behaviour changes required to grow green economies, generate jobs and lift people out of poverty without pushing the world through planetary boundaries.”

The Blue Planet laureates who gathered in London to work on the paper are:

– Professor Sir Bob Watson, Chief Scientific Adviser of the UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra)

– Lord (Robert) May of Oxford, former Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK Government and President of Royal Society of London

– Professor Paul Ehrlich, Stanford University

– Professor Harold Mooney, Stanford University

– Dr. Gordon Hisashi Sato, President, Manzanar Project Corporation

– Professor José Goldemberg, secretary for the environment of the State of São Paulo, Brazil and Brazil’s interim Secretary of Environment during the Rio Earth Summit in 1992

– Dr Emil Salim, former Environment Minister of the Republic of Indonesia

– Dr Camilla Toulmin, Director of the International Institute for Environment and Development

– Bunker Roy, Founder of Barefoot College

– Dr Syukuro Manabe, Senior Scientist, Princeton University

– Julia Marton-Lefevre, Director-General of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

– Dr Simon Stuart, Chair of the Species Survival Commission of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

– Dr Will Turner, Vice President of Conservation Priorities and Outreach, Conservation International

– Dr Karl-Henrik Robert, Founder of The Natural Step, Sweden


In 1992, the year of the Rio Earth Summit, the Asahi Glass Foundation established the Blue Planet Prize, an award presented to individuals or organizations worldwide in recognition of outstanding achievements in scientific research and its application that have helped provide solutions to global environmental problems.

The Prize is offered in the hopes of encouraging efforts to bring about the healing of the Earth’s fragile environment. A full list of its past winners is online here.

The award’s name was inspired by the remark “the Earth was blue,” uttered by the first human in space, Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, upon viewing our planet. The Blue Planet Prize was so named in the hopes that our blue planet will be a shared asset capable of sustaining human life far into the future.

2012 is the 20th anniversary of the Blue Planet Prize. The Asahi Glass Foundation wishes to mark this anniversary with a fresh start in its efforts to help build an environmentally friendly society.

Source: UNEP – United Nations Environment Programme


The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has partnered with TreeHugger and Piictu in an exciting new photo initiative for World Environment Day 2012.

By uploading photos onto Piictu’s World Environment Day stream, users can create contests, compete with friends, ask questions, or start a debate.

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has partnered with TreeHugger and Piictu in an exciting new photo initiative for World Environment Day 2012.

Using the Piictu application on your iPhone, you can take photos of the environment around you and instantly post them into an interactive stream of other images taken by people around the world,

The partnership launched its first photo stream last week entitled “The Environment Speaks”. Piictu users have been uploading photos along with a suggestion from the photographer on what the tree, plant, mountain, animal or lake they have snapped may be thinking or saying.
Current submissions include a bowl of fruit declaring, “Eat me, Not McDonalds!”, a fed up tree threatening, “If one more dog comes by?”,and a desk plant suggesting, “I look better outside.”

In partnership with UNEP and TreeHugger, Piictu is initiating streams for World Environment Day on its app. While Piictu is not a campaign or competition, the best pictures on selected streams will occasionally receive small prizes, such as an exclusive World Environment Day t-shirt that is autographed by Gisele Bündchen ? UNEP’s Goodwill Ambassador.

The Piictu app is currently only available for iPhones. If you are already on Piictu, search for @WorldEnvironmentDay and join in the fun.

For more information, please contact:

Enock Chinyenze, UNEP Special Events, Tel. +254 20 762 1551 or E-mail

Source: UNEP News Centre


Ximena Prugue, winner of last year’s WED blogging competition, with UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner and World Environment Day 2011 participants in India.

Nairobi, 18 January 2012 – The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), in partnership with TreeHugger, is pleased to launch the third World Environment Day (WED) blogging competition.

The winner will receive a free trip to Brazil – the host of this year’s World Environment Day on 5 June 2012 – to write, blog and tweet about WED events in the country.

Bloggers are invited to enter the competition via online submissions of blog articles on the Green Economy. This ties in with the overall WED 2012 theme – Green Economy: Does It Include You? – which aims to highlight opportunities for moving towards low carbon, resource-efficient and socially inclusive sustainable development.

To enter, bloggers can post a link to Green Economy stories on the UNEP Facebook page with this comment, “I just entered to win a trip to Brazil for UNEP’s World Environment Day 2012. Read my blog post and discover how the Green Economy includes you.

Entries must be made between 16 January and 12 February 2012.

To increase your chances of winning, post your story on Twitter with the hash tag #WED2012, and encourage friends to comment, ‘like’ the post on Facebook, and retweet your post across Facebook and Twitter.

The top ten bloggers, selected by a UNEP-TreeHugger jury, will be invited to a take part in a second round of blogging – a blogdown!

The winner of this blogging showdown will be determined by an online community via the World Environment Day website. Shortlisted bloggers will be awarded one vote for every ‘like’ that their entry receives online.

The blogger who accumulates the most votes by the end of April 2012 will win the competition and be invited to travel to Brazil to blog about World Environment Day.

The short-listed and winning posts will be published on TreeHugger and the World Environment Day websites.

What’s included in the prize?

Flights, accommodation, visa costs and travel within Brazil to WED events will be covered.


World Environment Day is on 5 June 2012. The competition winner will be flown to Brazil for three days, beginning June 3rd and ending June 6th 2012.


Entrants will be expected to ensure they are able to travel to Brazil during the period above and to cover any other costs (e.g. vaccinations).

For all terms and conditions, please visit:

More information on the Green Economy can be found at:

For more information, please contact:

Enock Chinyenze, United Nations Environment Programme, Phone: +254 20 762 1551, E-mail:

Original: UNEP News Centre


Achim Steiner, 50, executive director of the United Nations Environment Program, speaks to SPIEGEL about the current state of global climate negotiations ahead of the UN conference in Durban, South Africa. If the world can afford billions in bank bailouts, it can also subsidize climate protection to ensure a better future, he argues.

UN Environment Program head Achim Steiner says climate change policymaking is still in its infancy. (Photography: AFP)

SPIEGEL: Despite one United Nations climate summit after the next, in 2010 carbon-dioxide emissions reached a new record of 33.5 billion tons. Are the summits in vain?

Steiner: The traffic light is already red, but we’re still stepping on the gas at full speed. If emissions aren’t soon uncoupled from economic growth, the earth will warm to a state that will threaten our prosperity. That’s exactly why climate policy is neither futile nor defeated. On the contrary, it’s obviously just at the beginning. Flood disasters like the one that recently occurred in Thailand must not become routine.

SPIEGEL: The reality of climate change has been denied and downplayed, particularly in the United States. Is this a backlash against exaggerated warnings?

Steiner: Anyone who dismisses the risk of climate change today does so out of deficient scientific understanding or very shortsighted economic interests. New findings show that climate researchers have more likely underestimated than overestimated the speed and magnitude of the changes.

SPIEGEL: Are you disappointed that even under President Barack Obama, the United States continues to stall advances in climate protection policies?

Steiner: I am still optimistic that, sooner or later, the US will be freed from its current political paralysis. If not, the international community will reach a certain point where it will say that it must act, even without the US. When it comes to future technologies, Europe is today already orienting itself more towards Asia.

SPIEGEL: Is it not understandable to you that the economic crisis is pushing a medium-term problem like climate change onto the backburner?

Steiner: The financial crisis forces the politicians to take an unhealthily short-term view. It’s not true that climate protection measures would make energy unaffordable or cost jobs. The “Green Economy” is already creating hundreds of thousands of jobs around the world. But each day economic and business arguments are misused to frighten citizens and consumers about making the necessary changes in this direction. Hundreds of billions have been mobilized practically overnight to bail out banks. We can also afford a cross-generation task such as climate protection.

SPIEGEL: Do you see positive signs?

Steiner: We’re still far away from what needs to happen. But China has managed to separate its economic growth from emissions. And the European Union has more or less reached its goal of reducing emissions by 20 percent compared to 1990 levels. It would now be economically sensible for the EU to raise its goal to 30 percent.

SPIEGEL: Can the Kyoto Protocol requiring rich countries to reduce their CO2 output still be saved?

Steiner: Without a miracle it won’t be extended. It’s really too bad, too, because it had a positive affect and made CO2 an economic factor. Now something new must be created.

SPIEGEL: Do you still believe in an international climate pact?

Steiner: The world will come to the conclusion that there is no alternative to this pact. It would make it possible to cut back on the $600 billion in subsidies per year that go to fossil energy sources and to put a price on carbon that will help green technologies to achieve a breakthrough.

SPIEGEL: Can the United Nations Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 2012 bring about a turning point?

Steiner: The Earth Summit will provide a chance to show that there are alternatives to financial and ecological overextension. Hopefully it will be a productive global economic summit.

Author: Christian Schwägerl
Source: Spiegel Online – International


(Photography: UNEP/GRID-Arendal)

Bali (Indonesia)/Nairobi, 21 November 2011 – Keeping a global, 21st century temperature rise under 2 degrees Celsius will require urgent action on a group of chemicals increasingly being used in products such as air conditioners, refrigerators, firefighting equipment and insulation foams.

The chemicals, collectively known as Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), are becoming popular as replacements for those phased-out or being phased-out to protect the ozone layer—the Earth’s high flying shield that filters out dangerous levels of the sun’s ultra violet rays.

But a report launched today by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) projects that by 2050 HFCs could be responsible for emissions equivalent to 3.5 to 8.8 Gigatonnes (Gt) of carbon dioxide (Gt CO2eq) – comparable to total current annual emissions from transport, estimated at around 6-7 Gt annually.

Achim Steiner, UN Under-Secretary General and UNEP Executive Director, said: “The more than 20 year-old international effort to save the ozone layer ranks among the most successful examples of cooperation and collaboration among nations—the original chemicals, known as CFCs, were phased-out globally in 2010 and countries are freezing and then phasing-out the replacements, HCFCs”.

“However a new challenge is rapidly emerging as countries move ahead on HCFCs and that is HFCs. While these ‘replacements for the replacement’ chemicals cause near zero damage to the ozone layer, they are powerful greenhouse gases in their own right. The good news is that alternatives exist alongside technological solutions according to this international study and while assessing the absolute benefits from switching needs further scientific refinement there is enough compelling evidence to begin moving away from the most powerful HFCs today,” he added.

HFCs are, along with CO2, methane and other gases, controlled under the UN’s Framework Convention for Combating Climate Change and its Kyoto Protocol.

Measures to protect the ozone layer are carried out under the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer.

“Cooperative action between these treaties may be the key to fast action on HFCs, assisting to maintain momentum on recovering the ozone layer while simultaneously reducing risks of accelerated climate change,” said Mr Steiner.

The new report HFCs: A Critical Link in Protecting Climate and the Ozone Layer was launched today in Bali, Indonesia, at the 23rd Meeting of the Parties to the Montreal Protocol.

The report is the first of three being launched this week by UNEP in the run up to the UN climate convention meeting in Durban, South Africa. (see Notes to Editors)

Key Findings from the HFC report

The contribution of HFCs to climate forcing is currently less than one per cent of all greenhouse gases.

– But levels of HFCs are rising as they replace HCFCs—HFC 134a, the most popular type, has increased in the atmosphere by about 10 per cent per year since 2006.

The consumption of HFCs is projected to exceed the peak consumption levels in the 1980s of the old, now fully phased-out CFCs—this is primarily due to rising demand in emerging economies and a global population now above seven billion.

– The phase-out and phase-down of CFCs and HCFCs since the late 1980s has reduced greenhouse gas emissions by around 8 Gt C02eq annually while reducing damage to the ozone layer. This has been a tremendous plus for global climate protection.

– However, without action, the increasing use of HFCs could add annual greenhouse gas emissions of between 3.5 and 8.8 Gt C02 eq by 2050, and thus undo the large climate benefits scored by the phase out of CFCs and HCFCs since the late 1980s.

The report points to a range of alternatives that could ensure that the impact of HFCs remains small and equal to today’s impacts.

– Alternative Methods and Processes – these range from improved building design that reduces or avoids the need for air conditioners to fibre rather than foam insulation materials

– Non-HFC substances – there are already commercially available alternatives that range from ammonia to dimethyl ether for use in foams, refrigeration and fire protection systems

– Climate-friendly HFCs – some HFCs have shorter life-times in the atmosphere of months rather than years. Some of these are being introduced such as HFC 1234ze in foams and HFC-1234yf for mobile air-conditioners

The report points out that, with further technical developments backed by standards, investment incentives and training for technicians and workers, the introduction of alternatives to climate-damaging HFCs could be accelerated and fast-tracked.

Notes to Editors

HFCs: A Critical Link in Protecting Climate and the Ozone Layer—a UNEP Synthesis Reportis available at

On 23 November at 11.30 am GMT UNEP, in collaboration with climate modeling centres, will launch Bridging the Gap: An Assessment which outlines the gap between the commitments and pledges of countries versus where emissions need to be by around 2020 in order to keep a global temperature rise under 2 Degrees C

Venue: Kohn Centre, The Royal Society, 6-9 Carlton House Terrace, London SW1Y 5AG

On 25 November at 11.30am GMT, UNEP in collaboration with researchers will launch a report that outlines a package of 16 measures which could reduce global warming, avoid millions of premature deaths and reduce global crop yield losses by tackling black carbon, methane and ground-level ozone – substances known as short-term climate forcers.

Venue: The Conference Room, The Royal Society, 6-9 Carlton House Terrace, London, SW1Y 5AG

The 17th Conference of the Parties to the UNFCCC will take place in Durban from 28 November to 9 December 2011

For more information please contact:

Nick Nuttall, Acting Director UNEP Division of Communications and Public Information, on Tel: +254 733 632755 or when travelling +41 79 596 5737,


UNEP Newsdesk (Nairobi) on Tel. +254207625022 or Email:

Source: UNEP – United Nations Environment Programme


Towards a Green Economy: Pathways to Sustainable Development and Poverty Eradication

Beijing, 16 November 2011 – A new UN report demonstrates that governments and businesses alike are taking steps to accelerate a global shift towards a low-carbon, resource-efficient and socially inclusive green future.

From China to Barbados, Brazil to South Africa, countries are developing Green Economy strategies and activities to spur greater economic growth and jobs, environmental protection and equality.

In a statement issued on the release of UNEP’s flagship report, Towards a Green Economy: Pathways to Sustainable Development and Poverty Eradication, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said: “With the world looking ahead to the Rio+20 UN Conference on Sustainable Development in June 2012, the UNEP Green Economy report challenges the myth that there is a trade-off between the economy and the environment. With smart public policies, governments can grow their economies, generate decent employment and accelerate social progress in a way that keeps humanity’s ecological footprint within the planet’s carrying capacity.”

Key Messages

The report, a result of a three-year global research effort involving hundreds of experts, underwent a three-month public review before being unveiled today. It confirms that an investment of two percent of global GDP across 10 key sectors is what is required to kick-start a shift from the current brown, polluting and inefficient economy to a green one.

– The report estimates that such a transition would grow the global economy at around the same rate, if not higher, than those forecast, under current economic models.

– But without rising risks, shocks, scarcities and crises increasingly inherent in the existing, resource-depleting, high carbon ‘brown’ economy, says the study.

– In addition to higher growth, an overall transition to a Green Economy would realize per capita incomes higher than under current economic models, while reducing the ecological footprint by nearly 50 per cent in 2050, as compared to business-as-usual.

– The Green Economy Report acknowledges that in the short-term, job losses in some sectors – fisheries for example – are inevitable if they are to transition towards sustainability.

– However, it adds that over time the number of “new and decent jobs created” in sectors – ranging from renewable energies to more sustainable agriculture – will, however, offset those lost from the former “brown economy”.

As a result, a growing number of countries are undertaking activities to accelerate this transition.

At the China Council meeting this week, for example, the government’s international advisory group is expected to put forward its own study for moving towards a Green Economy.

China is the world’s lead investor in renewable energy, overtaking Spain in 2009 and spending US$49 billion in 2010. Overall, China is committed to spending US$468 billion over the next five years, more than double the previous five years, on key industries, including renewable energy, clean technologies and waste management.

“China considers the Green Economy to be a strategic choice in an increasingly resource constrained world, and we have made that choice in our development plans,” said Mr. He Bingguang, Director General of the Department of Resource Conservation and Environmental Protection in China’s National Development and Reform Commission.

“We appreciate UNEP’s contribution in promoting a global Green Economy transformation, which holds the potential for all countries to benefit,” he added.

Some countries, such as Barbados, Cambodia, Indonesia, the Republic of Korea and South Africa, already have national Green Economy plans that reflect the report’s recommendations.

Others such as Armenia, Azerbaijan, Egypt, Kenya, Jordan, Malaysia, Mexico, Nepal, Senegal and Ukraine are focusing on greening priority sectors, such as agriculture, renewable energy, tourism and clean technologies.

Today in Rwanda, East African countries are meeting to explore how laws and regulatory frameworks can help drive a Green Economy at the national and regional level. Participants from Burundi, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, as well as Rwanda, will examine case studies and continent-wide initiatives, the latter being led by the African Union.

On the business side, UNEP has teamed up with 285 of the world’s leading investors, representing US$20 trillion in assets, who called on governments to mobilize action on climate change, including investments in emerging industries – like renewables and green buildings. Similar calls have been echoed by the International Chamber of Commerce, which represents hundreds of thousands of businesses in more than 130 countries.

“The elements of a transition to a Green Economy are clearly emerging across developing and developed countries alike. There are now some nations going further and faster than others which is in many ways generating a ‘pull factor’ that, if maintained, may bring others along over the coming months and years,” said Achim Steiner, UN Under Secretary General and Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP).

The recent drive in clean investment is not only benefitting emerging economies, but also other developing countries. According to the latest Bloomberg figures, global investments in renewable energy jumped 32 per cent in 2010, to a record US$211 billion. After the emerging economies of Brazil, China and India, countries in Africa posted the highest percentage increase of all developing regions.

In Egypt, renewable energy investment rose by US$800 million to US$1.3 billion as a result of the solar thermal project in Kom Ombo and a 220 megawatt onshore wind farm in the Gulf of Zayt. In Kenya, investment climbed from virtually zero in 2009 to US$1.3 billion in 2010 across technologies such as wind, geothermal, small-scale hydro and biofuels.

In the California Mojave Desert, one of the world’s largest solar-thermal power plants is under construction and others are also being built in Spain and other parts of the United States.

“The Durban climate convention meeting in a few week’s time and Rio+20 next year are key opportunities to accelerate and scale-up the Green Economy. Central cooperative actions range from advancing Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+), moving on green procurement to switch national efforts into the sustainability space up to a new indicator of wealth that goes beyond GDP and internalizes the costs of pollution and degradation while bringing the true value of the planet’s nature-based assets into calculations of a successful and sustainable economic path,” said Mr. Steiner.

A series of UN-backed regional consultations on the Green Economy have underscored the growing interest in the report. While issues of financing and trade need to be addressed further, there is an acknowledgement that the current economic model, based solely on GDP growth, has resulted in the gross misallocation of capital and inequitable distribution of wealth.

The Report shows that investing the equivalent of two per cent of global GDP into agriculture, energy, buildings, water, forestry, fisheries, manufacturing, waste, tourism and transport would not only shift the global economy onto a more sustainable growth trajectory, but it would actually maintain or increase growth over time compared to the current business-as-usual scenario.

Policy recommendations on each of the 10 key sectors, as well as on finance and enabling conditions, are outlined in the report.

On transport, for example, the report suggests that prices need to take account of the societal costs accumulated as a result of congestion, accidents and pollution, which in some cases amount to over 10 per cent of the national or regional GDP. In Beijing, a 2009 study estimated that the social costs induced by motorized transportation are equivalent to between 7.5 and 15 per cent of the city’s GDP.

Globally, the transport sector’s impact on natural resources is wide-ranging, from the manufacturing of vehicles, which uses metals and plastics, to its use of fossil fuels, which involves engine oil, rubber and other consumable materials. Between 2007 and 2030, the transport sector is expected to account for 97 per cent of the increase in the world’s primary oil use.

With the number of vehicles in China expected to more than triple during this period, the government is promoting low-carbon, energy efficient cars and related infrastructure. In the city of Shenzhen, home of China’s first electric car, plans are underway to build large recharging stations and replace traditional buses with more than 7,000 electric ones in five years time.

Generating Jobs

The Green Economy Report suggests that over time “new and decent jobs” will be catalyzed in these key sectors. A recent study by ILO and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), entitled, Low Carbon Development and Green Employment in China, confirms that this is the case.

It provides a list of likely winners and losers and the scale of direct and indirect impact involved to identify net gains. It concludes that while 800,000 workers in small coal power plants in China are likely to lose their jobs due to climate mitigation actions, some 2.5 million jobs could be created by 2020 in the wind energy sector alone.

Currently, Denmark is home to the world’s top wind turbine manufacturer in terms of market volume, and China is in second place, followed by the United States and then another Chinese company. Germany ranks fifth. However, Germany has recently committed to scale up its renewable energy, following a decision to phase out nuclear power by 2022, and has thus set a target to source 35 per cent of its electricity from renewable energies by 2022, instead of the earlier target of 19 per cent.

In Africa, despite recent economic gains, there is increasing interest in creating green and decent employment. Representatives from 11 African countries met in June this year with ILO, UNDP and UNEP to look at case studies in the areas of recycling, sustainable construction and natural resource management. As a result, participants adopted action plans for creating green jobs in fisheries, agriculture and forestry, sectors which represent over 70 per cent of the employment in the region.

In Brazil, the ILO recently helped support the construction of 500,000 new homes with solar heating systems, resulting in 30,000 new jobs. In South Africa, a similar project on water ecosystem restoration created 25,000 green jobs for previously unemployed people, and at the same time, restored vital freshwater sources.

Generating Social Equity

Approximately two billion people live on smallholder farms, and despite making a significant contribution to food security, the majority of these farmers are malnourished and live in poverty. Low prices, unfair trade practice and a lack of transport contribute to their dilemma. The Green Economy Report argues that by moving to more sustainable agriculture practices, these farmers could increase their yields and profits.

Globally, an investment of US$100-300 billion per year in green agriculture, between now and 2050, could lead to better soil quality and better yields for major crops, representing a 10 per cent increase over the current business-as-usual strategies. As many of these farmers are also women, any benefits would most likely be shared with their families and communities.

The waste sector is another area that is expected to enhance social equity. Efforts to green the sector are often driven by cost savings, environmental awareness and resource scarcity.

However, the report notes that greening the sector not only requires improving the often sub-standard waste treatment and disposal facilities, it also entails training the workers, providing more equitable compensation and ensuring proper health care protection for them. Decentralizing large scale, capital-intensive waste management operations could also provide more employment opportunities in the community.

Electronic waste (or e-waste) is also a concern, particularly for developing countries. Current estimates suggest 20 to 50 million tonnes of e-waste are generated each year, while trade in waste becomes more prevalent, heightening threats to human health and the environment.

As sales in mobile phones and computers continue to grow in China, India, and across Africa and Latin America, the report finds that resource recovery and recycling offer the greatest potential in terms of contributing to a Green Economy.

Notes to the Editors:

Rio Earth Summit: In 1992 the UN Conference on Sustainable Development, popularly known as the Rio Earth Summit, was convened in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to address the state of the environment and sustainable development. In June 2012, there will be the follow up meeting or Rio+20 in Brazil, where one of the main themes governments are expected to address is Green Economy “in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication”.

Towards a Green Economy: Pathways to Sustainable Development and Poverty Eradication can be found on the UNEP website:

For more information, please contact:

Nick Nuttall, UNEP Division of Communication and Public Information Acting Director and Spokesman, Tel. or or email

Ms. Jiang Nanqing, UNEP China Office, Tel. , Mobile: , Email:

Ms. Chen Hao, UNEP China Office, Tel: , Mobile: , Email:

Source: UNEP – United Nations Environment Programme


%d bloggers like this: