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Summit's Over: Get to Work

September 05, 2002

The widely varying assessments of the global summit that ended Wednesday in Johannesburg, South Africa, testify to the breadth of expectations that advocates and governments held going in. Environmental organizations, which were the most disappointed, wanted the leaders of 100 nations and thousands of delegates to come up with detailed plans and targets for ending poverty and protecting the global environment. That was not realistic, and declaring the meeting a failure dismisses its gains.

U.S. delegates pronounced themselves well satisfied with the result. The Bush administration, even minus the presence of President Bush, was the most powerful single entity at what officially was known as the World Summit on Sustainable Development.

Though Secretary of State Colin L. Powell was booed Wednesday and Washington was criticized for blocking firm targets on increasing the use of renewable energy, the United States got its way. Delegates agreed only to an "urgent and substantial" increase in the use of renewable sources of power such as solar and wind.

Some smaller promises were more specific. Powell said Wednesday that 6,000 children died from water-related illnesses every day, underlining the need to improve one of the essentials of life. He announced a $970-million joint program with Japan to improve water quality and sanitation in developing countries, and the summit did set a target date, 2015, to cut by half the number of people without access to safe drinking water, some 1.1 billion.

Delegates also agreed that by 2015 the world's fishing stocks would be restored. Ending overfishing through better management of regional fisheries and stopping illegal catches could provide a steady source of food for hundreds of millions of people.

The gathering was a sequel to the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit of 1992, which sharpened the world's focus on environmental issues but set goals that were not met. The Johannesburg meeting was designed to push the problems identified at Rio closer to a solution.

The United Nations did note progress in the last decade. More than 800 million people in developing countries gained improved drinking water, and more than 700 million got access to sanitation facilities. The U.N. also noted failures, especially the increasing consumption of fossil fuels such as oil and coal.

The United States and other nations must make good on their promises. That means sending money, of course--but also ensuring that programs work as planned by inspecting them as they are developed, keeping records of how many wells are dug and how many people are inoculated against diseases. The Bush administration has stressed providing aid only to governments that are not corrupt, another promise to be kept.

It will do no good to hold another meeting in 10 years to lament darker skies, dirtier water and more people living deeply in poverty.

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