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About UNEP
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United Nations Environment Programme
Division of Technology, Industry and Economics
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Freshwater Management Series No. 7

Phytotechnologies

A Technical Approach in Environmental Management

I. INTRODUCTION – AN ECOSYSTEMS PERSPECTIVE

Aerial view of mountains  

Our global interdependence and vulnerability has never been more pronounced. What happens on one part of the planet will have some kind of effect, at some time, on all other parts. Global change is a dynamic process that can only be understood from a holistic and ecological perspective. In describing the interactions of parts within the global ecosystem, the Brundtland Report refers to “a complex and interlinked ecosystem”, and the need to take into account “the system-wide effects of exploitation”. Emerging from this is the rationale for sustainable development and the importance of meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

Ecological processes are at the centre of these interactive natural, social and technological forces. On the one hand, through science and technology, humans are in the unique position of being responsible for their own environment. On the other hand, unexpected threats have arisen from the by-products of scientific and technological developments and in some cases ecosystems resilience and species diversity have diminished. Loss of plant and animal species can greatly limit the options of future generations; it is therefore important to ensure the conservation of species and the maintenance of biodiversity. It can be argued that the highest survival value for society is to maintain the integrity of the ecosystem and biotic community as a whole and that our human capacity to understand these processes confers upon us the responsibility to do this.

A. Environmentally Sound Technologies

Technologies reflect our cultural values and historically have altered the nature of human consciousness. Technologies, by their very presence, often force us into searching for solutions to problems that become defined as technological, even though many of these problems may not have been technological to begin with. Some believe that the problems created by one technology can be solved by a technological fix from another. They often ignore the fact that humans are both part of and dependent on nature. This is because the human and environmental consequences of technological choices and the extent to which we are shaped by technology are often obscured.

As shown in Table 1, all technologies undergo a similar development cycle, regardless of their origin or application. The first stage is the identification of a need, a problem or an opportunity. Second, there is a choice of alternatives. Next comes a series of operational steps, including - selection of sites and technologies; design; acquisition of appropriate rights and permissions; const ruction; operation and maintenance; and follow-up. Over time, there must be monitoring and evaluation and, if required, upgrading and repair. The final stage involves replacement or reuse, abandonment and disposal.

Rational environmental management means making the best use of resources to meet basic human needs without destroying the sustaining and regenerative capacity of natural systems. This requires a good understanding of the intersecting elements within the larger frame of development and implies the adoption and use of alternative, environmentally sound development strategies and related technologies.

Table 1: Technology Development Cycle
Technology Development Cycle

Environmentally Sound Technologies (ESTs) are technologies that have the potential for significantly improved environmental performance relative to other technologies. ESTs protect the environment, are less polluting, use resources in a sustainable manner, recycle more of their wastes and products, and handle all residual wastes in a more environmentally acceptable way than the technologies for which they are substitutes. ESTs are not just individual technologies. They can also be defined as total systems that include know-how, procedures, goods and services, and equipment, as well as organizational and managerial procedures for promoting environmental sustainability.

Defining environmentally sound technologies in an absolute sense is difficult since the environmental performance of a technology depends upon its impacts on specific human populations, biota and ecosystems, and the availability of supporting infrastructure and human resources for the management, monitoring and maintenance of the technology, as well as the sustainability of natural systems. The soundness of environmental technology is also influenced by temporal and geographical factors, to the extent that some technologies may be environmentally sound now but may be replaced in the future by even cleaner technologies.

Likewise, what is environmentally sound in one country or region may not be in another, unless it is redesigned or adapted to make it appropriate for addressing local needs. Thus the term environmentally sound technology can be applied to all technologies and their transition to becoming more environmentally sound; this ranges from basic technologies to fully integrated technologies. This definition captures the full life cycle flow of the material, energy and water in the production and consumption system. It also implies the development and application of environmentally sound technologies underpinned by more holistic environmental management strategies based on the characteristics of natural systems, which include: species diversity; resilience; adaptiveness; regenerative capacity; interconnectedness; spatial and temporal fluctuation; etc. Examples of ESTs that emulate natural processes are Ecological Engineering and Ecotechnologies.

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