Sustainable development is a phrase we hear thrown around from time to time in order to underline our ideal vision of the future – rid of all the problems that the inhabitants of the Earth tackle today. Depletion of natural resources. Gender inequality. An unequal distribution of wealth. These are just a few but they illustrate accurately the issues which we are striving to eliminate. However, due to the all-encompassing nature of the term Sustainable Development and the gravity of the situation which it looks to solve, many treat it as an abstract, unachievable concept usually taking into consideration the shocking images of over polluted oceans or the hopelessness of their life situation due to being born female. Nevertheless, a thorough understanding of this field and its challenges is quite necessary in our current environment and can help in living a more conscious and altruistic life.
Sustainable development is “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” –World Commission on Environment and Development, 1987
Basically, sustainable development is a long-term solution to how we plan our indefinite progress in the future without causing damage to the environment so as to guarantee a safe habitat for the next generations, who will continue to develop their economies, societies, and care for the environment with a similar ideal in mind. It satisfies our needs without sabotaging the opportunities of others. The concept covers a broad scope of matters such as environmental, social, and economic development which continues to prove its importance in our lives as it affects all aspects of them. The United Nations have set out a number of Sustainable Development Goals and targets to serve as guidelines for the future and optimal conscious development.
UN Sustainable Development Goals
During the UN Sustainable Development Summit of September 2015, which took place in New York, the Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development was adopted by the 193 countries belonging to the UN General Assembly and clearly outlined 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and 169 targets which are associated to them. They tackle social, economic, personal, physical and environmental issues which, again, emphasizes the all-encompassing nature of sustainable development. These goals proposed by the UN have come under scrutiny, however, for two main, quite different, reasons. Ruth Kattumuri of the LSE Asia Research Centre & India Observatory has criticized the goals for not putting enough emphasis on social issues, whilst the goals regarding economic and environmental security are extensively covered. She also states that the UN undermines the gravity of the problem of human trafficking which is estimated to be a $32 billion industry which exploits and violates the human rights of hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children each year. Child abuse is another problem that the SDG’s set out by the UN fail to tackle.
On the other side, many argue that the sustainable development goals cover too broad an area of issues and should be more focused if they are to be achieved over the next twelve years. Some targets could also be said to be rather idealistic, such as the first target – No Poverty. Jonathan Tanner of the Guardian went as far as to say: “We’re going to have to pretty much end violent conflict, experience a Damascene climate conversion, sustain high rates of economic growth, avoid any recession in poor countries and make sure nobody who is disabled or seriously ill sees their income drop to less than $1.25 a day.” There is a lot of truth to what Mr. Tanner wrote, however, some of the SDG’s out to be taken with a pinch of salt and be treated as ideals which we aim to achieve. They may not necessarily be fully achievable due to the nature of humans, nevertheless, the closer we get to them, the better.
In short, the SDG’s set out by the UN in 2015 are, indeed, very good guidelines, however, their achievability may not be feasible in our current environment of violence, corruption and wide gaps in the wealth of developed and less developed countries. We should only hope that we come to a day when they will stop being guidelines and become our reality.
Why is Sustainable Development Important?
Owing to our rapidly growing population, in the future more resources will be needed in order to accommodate for it and, unfortunately, the resources that we take benefit of now are not all renewable. Taking this into consideration, the tech industry will have to adapt to future conditions as of now the rare metals and minerals used in the industry, such as Palladium – a metal widely used in the production of consumer electronics, are becoming increasingly scarce. Another factor to take into consideration is the fact that China currently produces 97% of the world’s rare earth materials and were it to, hypothetically, place a blockade on its exports, production of technological goods would become incredibly difficult. Seeing as our industries are investing and relying more and more on technology if rare earth metals were to slowly disappear, prices would rocket, and so would inflation rates, making it impossible to function for, at least, a prolonged period of time. For this reason, new alternatives and innovations in the tech industry are essential to sustainable development in order to secure steady development in this field without relying on an excessive amount on exhaustible materials. SDG 9 and target 9.4 corresponds to this issue and suggests to:
By 2030, upgrade infrastructure and retrofit industries to make them sustainable, with increased resource-use efficiency and greater adoption of clean and environmentally sound technologies and industrial processes, with all countries taking action in accordance with their respective capabilities.
Another crucial issue are the potential food shortages in the future in the face of our growing population which is estimated to hit a little under 10 billion by 2050. According to Nafis Sadik: “A country’s ability to feed itself very much depends on three factors: availability of arable land, accessible water and population pressures”. The area of arable land currently available is diminishing due to deforestation which limits the availability of local food for people inhabiting areas near to the forests, especially for the peoples of Southeast Asia and South America. Due to the soil erosion, which usually occurs following the conversion of forest land into agricultural land for growing cash crops such as coffee, tobacco or cotton, formerly fertile land is unable to be used for agricultural purposes and often morphs into desert land as was the case with the Brazilian Cerrado.
Since 1960, an estimated one-third of the world’s arable land has been lost through erosion and other degradations.
which is incredibly worrying, taking into consideration the growing population and Dr. Sadik’s conditions for a country’s ability to generate enough food supply. Of course, we can not ignore the fact that this is a great issue seeing that demand for lumber is never ending so deforestation is unavoidable. Some companies, such as IKEA, plant trees in the place of those which they cut down, however, these trees are often planted with the aim to generate more profit in the future and these formerly abundant forests are usually replaced with monoculture plantations which greatly cut down on the biodiversity of the surroundings. In conclusion, unless we find more sustainable alternatives to wood, the future doesn’t look that bright.
Something else which is a looming change we will have to make in the future is the manner in which livestock is raised and the frequency with which it is being consumed. Currently, livestock accounts for around 30% of the world’s surface which is fit for raising animals and due to the high demand for meat and dairy products, more and more areas are being transformed into grazing land or simply industrial livestock production. Setting aside the numerous ethical issues associated with the methods of raising livestock and even the very act of consuming products of an animal origin, the consumption of animal products at our current level is simply not sustainable owing to the amount of freshwater dedicated to the upkeep of animals, for example.
As we know, access to water is one of the main contributing factors to feeding a society and the water going towards the unethical industrial production of livestock would help cultivate could be going towards raising crop plants, which require less water to produce, less land and which have the potential to feed a much larger amount of people. It’s very important to take this into consideration in the context of the crisis of overpopulation and sufficient nutrition, however, the keeping of livestock poses many other challenges to sustainability:
- The pollution of bodies of water with agricultural waste
- The amount of fuel used in the transport of animal products and the livestock itself (high carbon emissions)
- Emissions of methane and other greenhouse gases by livestock which contributes to global warming
- Diseases associated with an excessive consumption of animal products, such as diabetes, cardiological diseases, and obesity
To conclude, sustainable development an issue which should be treated very seriously as it affects everyone, as illustrated by the scenarios above. If the world were to continue functioning as it is currently, many do not predict it a stable future. In order to secure a secure environment for our future generations, every single person and corporation needs to start reconsidering their own lifestyle choices and spreading awareness about the issues that plague this planet so that we can slowly begin to enforce actual changes.
The Main Challenges of Sustainable Development Today
Having highlighted the importance of sustainable development, it is also important to understand that it does need a lot of concentrated effort and, like many things in life, it does have many challenges ahead of itself. It is also important to note that sustainable development is equally valid in developing and developed countries, despite them dealing with polarly opposite sides of the spectrum. Developed countries may be developed but that doesn’t necessarily imply that they are sustainable and for these countries, the main goal is to rid their society of issues such as social inequalities, waste management, and environmental responsibility.
- Lack of financial resources to carry out and plan sustainable development
- Sustainable development is often not possible in war-torn countries as there are other priorities on hand.
- Natural occurrences, such as earthquakes and tsunamis, can pose a threat to sustainability as they can shift the flow of water and destroy certain elements of infrastructure. (In the village of Ramche in Nepal, the only source of water was shaken off course by the earthquake of 2015 and as a result of the difficulty of access to the village, it has been undergoing a water crisis. Expenditure on bottled water in the village has in turn grown and in many other areas in Nepal undergoing a water crisis, people resort to drinking and cooking with E-Coli infected water as an act of desperation. Meanwhile tsunamis in Southeast and East Asia may pose a threat to the already existing sustainable infrastructure, such as the destruction of means of public transport in Japan.)
- The governmental conflict between immediate profit and investment towards sustainable technologies. (In Poland, the government has even increased financing towards the mining sector instead of moving full steam ahead towards adopting sustainable energy sources, with coal amounting towards 80% of total energy generation in Poland. These measures are thought to have been implemented as a move to win miners’ votes in the south of Poland.)
- Corruption. (Funding to developing countries is usually provided through foreign grants, in the case of Nepal foreign grants constitute the majority coming from the UK. Nevertheless, due to bureaucracy and corruption in Nepal, in order to pass certain development projects a stipend needs to be paid to ministers as well as service fees to the Nepal government which significantly slow down NGO processes.)
- Lack of efforts at a municipal level
Sustainable Development in Nepal – A Case Study of Sustainable Development and its Challenges
As a result of its unique geographical location and geopolitical situation, Nepal, as a developing country, has faced many environmental, social, and economic issues, such as the extreme levels of pollution in bodies of water as was in the case of the Bagmati river which, fortunately, after state and volunteer-run efforts is now cleaner than it has been in a long time. Unfortunately, that fate has not met many of the 600 rivers flowing through the Kathmandu valley, where the population of the country is the densest, and they remain polluted by industrial waste from nearby factories. Owing to funding from the international governments, Nepal has recently undergone a period of accelerated development and an introduction to a consumerist culture which in conjunction with the lack of awareness regarding environmental issues has lead to a inefficient use of freshwater that is oh so abundant in Nepal.
Having had grown up in Nepal the one thing that has a prominent place in my memory is the rubbish – it is everywhere. Streets, rivers, fields, being eaten in the middle of the road by a hungry goat or sacred cow. Due to a lack of common knowledge on the recycling of rubbish, the same system of dealing with waste produced by the inhabitants of Kathmandu (especially) has been employed – dumping it all in landfills and hoping for the best without investing in appropriate infrastructure to reduce the rubbish in the Kathmandu waste sites. At this point in time, it involves reducing Kathmandu itself, in a certain sense, as rubbish is a constant fixture in its landscape. In spite of pilot projects being run in order to test out methods of reducing the waste levels, such as the building of fecal sludge treatment plants and infrastructure allowing biogas generation, due to the visible incompetence of the government and municipalities these projects have been left abandoned.
Luckily, the problem is not being entirely ignored as local initiatives are being created in order to combat the issue – WEPCO (Women’s Environment Preservation Committee) is one of them. Created in 1992, they are dedicated to cleaning and conserving the urban environment in the Kathmandu Valley. Thanks to initiatives like these, awareness is being raised through the Nepali society, especially youth, about the consequences of a polluted environment as well as municipal Solid Waste Management being proposed. Unfortunately, not all projects proposed by NGOs come into power as a result of the corruption and inefficiency of the Nepali government and it is most likely that Nepal will have to go through a true eye-opener until its citizens and the people responsible for the environmental well being of the country wake up.
Apart from a plethora of environmental issues that one of the most environmentally diverse countries in currently suffering, there are also a number of social issues present in Nepal that urgently require attention. For the sake of being concise, it is necessary to highlight the most crucial issues, however, it is vital to comprehend that every inequality, no matter how small, deserves attention. One of the most glaringly obvious social inequalities in Nepal is the corruption rampant in the government.
It is important to first understand what corruption is exactly as it’s another one of those buzzwords you can meet floating around without fully understanding them. According to Madhusudan Sharma Subedi:
“Corruption is conventionally understood, and referred to, as private wealth-seeking behavior of someone who represents the state and public authority. It is the misuse of public goods by public officials, for private gains. In simple terms, corruption may be described as “an act of bribery” or “the use of public power for private profits in a way that constitutes a breach of law or a deviation from the norms of society (Amundsen 2000)”
Corruption plays a great role in the situation Nepal currently finds itself – in a very slow if at all present rate of development, polluted and in poverty. Owing to the elitist nature of Nepali politics, despite it being a democratic country, it is very difficult to gain recognition as a new political party. Therefore, the same faces stay in power, even if they are not in a position of power in the public eye, meaning that bribes continue being handed around from corporations in order for the police to turn a blind eye to the amount of waste they’re churning into a nearby river. In this type of climate, development is very difficult unless there is a large amount of profit associated with it. Accordingly, no matter how many bills or projects are put before parliament, the proposals are aimed to stunt a private party’s business, for example, he can always pay the politicians off and the country remains in an unjust sort of limbo.
Gender inequality is another social issue rampant in Nepal today, even in spite of the mass immigration of predominantly male workers abroad in search of work when women are left responsible for farms, homes and local businesses. Why is that? Take this example – in rural regions of Nepal, women are often left responsible for cultivating land and the keep of livestock (1.6 times more women are involved in the subsistence agriculture sector) and even though she is responsible for this subsistence or cash farming, she does not have access to the profit the land yields, that access is granted solely to the “breadwinner” of the family – the husband. Due to the patriarchal nature of Nepalese society, economic abuse is commonly used against women with men claiming the entirety of access to shared funds and belittling women by monitoring their basic spending habits
Overall, from the onset, Nepali women are doomed to live a life associated with difficulties. A woman who first falls pregnant with a baby girl will often undergo the process of having an abortion, either to spare her from the same fate or as a result of domestic pressures of producing an heir to a family business or a child who can inherit the father’s will. Speaking from experience as a firstborn Nepali girl, the inequality in treatment between children is immense. One memory I have is of my brother, seven years younger than I, receiving golden bangles and gifts from my Brahmin grandparents while I received none. All because I was a girl and I wasn’t anything to be proud of. I was lucky enough to have a mother who encouraged me to succeed in life and prove everyone wrong, however, many girls growing up in conservative Nepali families, especially in rural regions, do not meet the same fate.
71% of Nepali males are literate in comparison to the very low percentage of 43% of women who are literate – this lack of access to education is often brought upon by responsibilities to family and the pressure of marriage and engaging fully in married life, these circumstances often result in women not going to higher education institutions or even to primary schools. If they do have the opportunity to go to work, it is often far more labour intensive than that of men and they work 3 hours more a day on average. It is frequently the case that in search for work, Nepalese women emigrate to places like Lebanon or Saudi Arabia, lured by promises of a better life, better work conditions and better pay, when in reality her work permit is handed to her employer under the karfala system and if she dares speak out against an abusive employer, she risks immediate deportation. Work in India is a whole other story, as due to the open border between India and Nepal, women are at a very high risk of hard labour or sexual trafficking. Border police are often bribed into turning a blind eye to the sexual trafficking of approximately 200 000 Nepalese women who often end up in brothels in India.
In short, women’s rights are an issue widely abused in Nepal as a result to the patriarchal culture omnipresent which does not want to make way for “Western” ideals of freedom of speech, the right to work, the condemning of domestic violence and the right to an education. Women are often left impoverished as a result and make up much of the Nepali population which resides in poverty. Achieving female empowerment in Nepal is one of the challenges of sustainable development there as extreme poverty is not a sustainable status quo. There are initiatives being created in order to facilitate the accessibility to microloans to women in rural regions, in order to disincentives their migration abroad, such as the Volunteers Initiative Nepal and UN Women and the UNFPA play a significant role in securing health services and education on sexual health for women.
Nepal is a very unique example of a developing country due to its culture, political practices and geopolitical location and not all development projects active in Nepal can be applied to many other developing countries, however, it helps in the illustration of how challenging sustainable development can be for many countries and how very important achieving it is. Hopefully, a liquidation of the corruption in the political system will make headway for positive change, nevertheless, owing to its long-running roots in Nepal, that day will probably not arrive for many a year and sustainable development will have to continue to be led by citizen-led initiatives and NGOs. However, the latter of the two faces its own internal problems and its own form of corruption (many foreign humanitarian workers come to Nepal for the easy money and not entirely out of purer aspirations) so it can prove to be inefficient. The future may not be bright for Nepal, nevertheless, there is a future in store for the country and it is up to the government, Nepali citizens and the international community to decide how it pans out.
Can we achieve Sustainable Development?
In spite of the very difficult circumstances in which many developing countries currently find themselves in, sustainable development is achievable, however, it would require a lot of concentrated and coordinated effort. If appropriate supply-side policies, such as education and vocational programmes, were to be implemented, illiteracy rates would drop and people would be made more aware about the environment surrounding them which would contribute greatly to a rise in environmental awareness. In addition, an appropriate government, which prioritized the growth of green GDP instead of GDP measured by the usual methods, would have to come into power and use its budget efficiently in order to invest in green energies, health services, and benefits systems, amongst others. Of course, this is only touching the tip of the iceberg, nevertheless, it illustrates very well that sustainable development is achievable and straightforward, however, each of the steps underlined above are incredibly hard to achieve. Concluding, sustainable development is achievable, however, it is only achievable is everyone is dedicated to achieving it. In order for this to happen, the world needs a wakeup call of cosmic dimensions – the only worry is it might be too late by then.
Further Reading & Watching