Speech - Opening address at the Sixth Ministerial Conference on Environment and Health

13–15 June 2017, Ostrava, Czech Republic

Your excellences

Minister Ludvík and Minister Brabec,

Governor Vondrak, Lord Mayor Macura,

United Nations Environment Deputy Executive Director, Mr Thiaw,

United Nations Economic Commission for Europe, Director Marco Keiner,

Ministers, excellences, ladies and gentlemen,

Welcome to Ostrava, to the Sixth Ministerial Conference on Environment and Health.

I warmly thank the Government of the Czech Republic, the Moravian-Silesian Region and the City of Ostrava for being fantastic hosts and partners in this big undertaking, and for hosting the Conference in this unique location.

The commitment of the Czech Republic to environment and health has a long history: it was in Dobříš Castle that the first “Environment for Europe” ministerial conference took place in 1991, launching the very first comprehensive assessment of the European environment.

We are gathered in what used to be a gas holder of one of the largest industrial complexes ever built in Europe, which operated without interruption for 170 years, until 1998, supplying iron and steel to the whole of Europe, fuelled by the nearby abundant coal mines.  
We are meeting in a very typical central European city, which grew and blossomed with the expansion of industry, railways and commerce in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Let me pay tribute to the thousands and thousands of workers and miners and their families who came to Ostrava through generations in search of the dignity of a job and better life, making a silent contribution to the industrial and social development of Europe. This progress came at the price of unprecedented environmental degradation and a very high toll in human health and lives.

At the same time, this place was also managed by people who understood well the need to balance economic growth with the health and well-being of people. Paul Kupelwieser, an outstanding manager at the end of the 19th century, elevated the ironworks of Ostrava to their greatest heights. But this man of very strong social convictions not only introduced state-of-the-art technologies of that time, but also implemented sophisticated social policies – from decent housing for the families of the workers to health facilities and educational institutions. This was accompanied by sophisticated urban planning, introducing piped water supply and sewerage, and an efficient network of roads, and the visual character of the city was unified thanks to the unmistakable red bricks and hollow tile fittings. He built New Vítkovice.

Ostrava today is a city that strives, and does impressively well, to improve the lives of its citizens in the post-industrial epoch – turning an obsolete legacy into a decent, prosperous and sustainable future.

This place – with its past and present – is the very embodiment of what brings us here: the transformative spirit of the Agenda for Sustainable Development. Ostrava and Lower Vítkovice remind us that we need to take stock of our complex legacy and our collective past, in order to transform it into new opportunities for future generations.

So let me say, welcome to the era of sustainable development.

Excellences, ladies and gentlemen,

Starting from the choice of the venue, I believe you came to realize that this Sixth Ministerial Conference on Environment and Health is not meant to be “business as usual”.

Much has changed since we met in 2010 in Parma.

First of all, our understanding of our place in the world has changed: convincing evidence has been steadily and irrefutably demonstrating that we live in an era in which human activity is altering entire ecological systems and natural processes, including the climate, and taking us into uncharted future developments, which have the potential to jeopardize our very existence.

Second, welcome to the era of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its goals. Adopted in 2015, they are the expression of our collective determination to eradicate poverty, heal and secure our planet and our future without anyone left behind. Its universal applicability, the comprehensive and integrated nature of its goals, means that we have only one way of succeeding: by working in partnerships, sometimes non-traditional partnerships, across sectoral and government boundaries.

Welcome also to the era of a renewed trust in our capacity to painstakingly, yet successfully, negotiate and broker new multilateral agreements, such as the historic Paris Agreement, in which “the right to health” will be central to the actions countries take, and the Minamata Convention on Mercury, the most recent multilateral environmental agreement addressing chemical safety.

In the WHO European Region, we now have the new European policy for health and well-being, Health 2020, which aims to create supportive environments and resilient communities. It aims upstream, at a complex interaction of social, environmental and economic determinants of health and well-being as the core of new public health, recognizing that health is a political choice and the business of the whole of government at all levels.

Welcome also to the New Urban Agenda, a global framework that emphasizes the critical role cities play in achieving sustainable development, and rethinks the way we build, manage and inhabit cities – where 8 out 10 Europeans will be living by 2030.

Third, this is the first time that a Ministerial Conference on Environment and Health is jointly organized with our key partners in the United Nations family, the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe and the United Nations Environment Programme. This is far from symbolic: it reflects the need for the United Nations system to “walk the talk” in implementing the Agenda for Sustainable Development, harmoniously pushing forward towards our goals across a variety of mandates and responding to your clear expectation to see us working together and effectively supporting the implementation of the agenda equally shared by the health and environment sectors.

Fourthly, this Conference focuses on people and, therefore, cities, regions and places. That is where our work should make a visible difference and where our success will be measured and judged by the public.

This is a Conference that we approach with an optimistic awareness that overall life expectancy and many other key health and well-being indicators have markedly improved and many dangerous environmental hazards have been greatly contained (think, for example, of lead or asbestos).

On the other hand, we should be acutely aware that in the WHO European Region, at least 1.4 million premature deaths per year are still attributable to environmental risk factors, with air pollution being the single most important risk factor.

This is a strong sign that we have a huge unfinished and persistent agenda.

Ladies and gentleman,

Should we not be collectively ashamed that the human right of access to basic water and sanitation services is still not a reality for millions of people in the WHO European Region? Every day, 14 people die of diarrhoeal disease due to inadequate water, sanitation and hygiene. Millions drink contaminated water and are denied the opportunity to live in a dignified and healthy environment, free of human waste.

Many schools and hospitals don't have safe water, soap or functional toilets, impacting dignity and health, not to mention learning. What is it that makes it so difficult, in the era of the digital revolution, big data, robots and nanotechnology? We have sent people to the Moon and we will send them soon to Mars, but we cannot get a toilet, soap and safe water in every school or hospital in Europe? I ask you – why?

We come to Ostrava with a draft declaration. Its priorities are as much about getting to the bottom of this unfinished business of the 19th century, as about addressing complex emerging issues, all in support of implementing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and Health 2020.

The Ostrava Declaration sets out to do that by working in partnerships, engaging all relevant stakeholders to strengthen action at the national level. It is not a “one-size-fits-all” approach, and it accepts the necessary flexibility for each Member State to identify its own priorities and actions to address them.

The Declaration aims to equip us with a more agile and streamlined institutional framework, resulting in stronger links to the WHO and UNECE relevant governing bodies, helping us to follow up on the implementation and monitor the progress more effectively.

This voluntary agreement is the result of a comprehensive, inclusive and evidence-informed preparatory process, which started in Haifa, Israel, 2 years ago. Its development was informed by a critical analysis of our successes and failures. The roadmap combined political negotiations with a thorough technical and policy review of the key priority areas that you have identified for the new European environment and health agenda: air pollution, chemical safety, cities, climate change, environmentally sustainable health systems, water, sanitation and hygiene, waste and contaminated sites.

This is the result of the collective hard work and commitment of those of you who have steered and led this process, as members of the European Environment and Health Task Force, its Ad-Hoc Working Group and of the European Environment and Health Ministerial Board and their Chairs and Co-Chairs, since the Parma Conference.

Today, please, allow me to address a loud and very special “thank you” to Mr Robert ThaIer, the Chair of the Task Force, who has steered the Ostrava negotiations so constructively and effectively.

Excellences, ladies and gentlemen,

I hope we will remember the Ostrava Conference as an important point in the history of the European Environment and Health Process, a conference which will have a legacy for all our people, our children and grandchildren – nobody forgotten or excluded. I trust in your support, commitment, enthusiasm and wisdom to make meaningful changes happen.

Thank you for your attention.