"Indicators have been used successfully in the past to highlight changes in conditions: a doctor measures the temperature of a patient and in the environmental sense, a caged canary proved an effective air quality indicator to coal miners" explains CSIR¿s Liz Muller. "Currently, environmental indicators - varying from technical measurements to survey questionnaires - provide a consistent way of tracking and measuring changes in the environment to assist government and institutions in proactively identifying danger signals (e.g. increased UV exposure and encroaching drought damage) and reacting promptly." Similarly, Muller points out, environmental indicators are invaluable in measuring the effects of past remedial environmental intervention and in tracking progress towards environmental sustainability.
Improved environmental information for decision making are imperatives, which were highlighted initially at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, and in the resulting Agenda 21, which is a global environmental strategy for sustainable development. State of the Environment reporting has since become the globally accepted means of reporting on environmental issues. Likewise, indicators are the globally accepted means of measuring progress towards sustainable development in countries which have adopted the principles contained in Agenda 21. The Earth Summit to be hosted in Johannesburg in 2002 will address the progress made in trying to improve environmental information for decision making 10 years later.
Working in consortium with the Human Sciences Research Council and Mzuri Consultants cc, CSIR Environmentek also involves and relies on input from government, industry, academics, NGOs and other stakeholders, who bring valuable background information and experience on board. The project aims to involve the interested public as well. "Anyone can get involved in the project," confirms Muller, "We invite the public to contact us."
Set for completion by the end of 2001, the project focuses on five sets of indicators for the following categories: atmosphere and climate; biodiversity; inland or fresh water; marine and coastal, and terrestrial systems. These categories reflect the state of the main environmental areas of concern in South Africa. Further consideration is given to the socio-economic and political issues common to the defined indicator groupings.
The National Environmental Indicators Project has completed an international and national indicator assessment and identified relevant indicators for the different categories. In addition, each category has been fleshed out with defined issues of direct importance to the environmental sustainability of the country, e.g. flood and drought management, alien invasive organisms, ozone destruction, loss of cultural heritage and pollution of marine and coastal environments. Development of specific indicators and an indicator presentation format with a user guideline for effective use by decision makers forms the final stages of the project.