Status of Environment Statistics in the Arab Region

Therese El Gemayel, 06 Jun 2017

Environment has been an emerging topic worldwide since the recognition of the importance of preserving and protecting the environment by the international community, and since the emergence of the sustainable use of the earth’ resources at the 1992 Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit. Ever since, environment and sustainable development have been a priority on the international agenda, manifested in the launch of the Goal 7[1] of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in 2000, followed by the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and quite clearly reflected in the consensus reached on the endorsed 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).


In order to assess the quality and status quo of the environment, significant work has been done at the international level since 1992 to advance the guidelines and methodologies for the development of comparable and standardized environment statistics. In 1995, the United Nations Statistical Commission approved the list of environmental and related socio-economic indicators to be compiled by the United Nations Statistics Department (UNSD). The first round of data collection was launched in 1999, which has led to refining the questionnaires in 2004 and further developing the bi-annual questionnaire on environment statistics, focusing on water and waste through a joint initiative between UNSD and the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP). The questionnaire formed the basis of the environment statistics’ collection initiatives undertaken at the national level, encouraging some countries to develop a more advanced environment statistics program, based on their national needs and challenges.


In the Arab region, environment statistics is a sector yet to be fully developed. Most countries faced challenges when reporting on the UNSD/ UNEP questionnaire. A quick review of the SDGs indicates that these challenges seem to be even more compounded to alleviate.


Presently, the collection and dissemination of environment data in the Arab region are untimely, irregular, and sometimes unreliable. A limited number of environment indicators are covered and reported; these are mainly water (availability, consumption-total and/ or by sector, quality), wastewater management and treatment (generation, treatment quantities, discharged), air pollution (toxins level in ambient air in cities), protected areas (size and type) and indexes (water deficit, water stress index). With great variability in data availability across Arab countries, the main national sources of environment data in the Arab region are the national statistical offices (NSOs), the ministries of environment, water, agriculture and some educational and private institutions.


The challenge of reporting on the environment-related indicators of the SDGs can be alleviated using the 2013-approved Framework for the Development of Environment Statistics (FDES). The FDES acts as the platform to assess the current environment statistics situation at the national level, in terms of institutional arrangements and technical review of the available statistics. At a second stage, the framework suggests three tiers to assist countries in implementing short, medium and long-term strategies for the collection of environment statistics. On the other hand, the System of Environmental-Economic Accounting (SEEA) complements the FDES in assessing the state of the environment in monetary terms, which can provide the ultimate tool for evidence-based policy making at the national level.


The challenges facing the Arab region are three levels: administrative, financial and technical.


NSOs in the Arab region are undermined, due to the common understanding that statistics are not an essential driver for policy formulation. Therefore, empowering NSOs is a crucial step towards collecting, analyzing and disseminating national standardized environment statistics. In addition, the collaboration between NSOs, relevant ministries, educational and private sector plays an important role in advancing the development of environment statistics, taking into account the various expertise available and avoiding duplication of work and resources.


Public expenditures on developing environment statistics in the Arab region are minimal, which includes underinvestment in human capital. In this regard, Arab governments are invited to increase the financial and human resources allocated to environment statistics units and to conclude bilateral agreements and partnerships with international and regional organizations, and other governmental, educational and private sector institutions. These agreements are crucial in minimizing the need for large additional financial resources. 


In the NSOs, the shortage of qualified human and technical resources poses a serious challenge towards achieving sustainability in the production of environment statistics. NSOs can take advantage of the provided technical and financial resources provided by the international community in the advancement and implementation of the SDGs, through the implementation of environment statistics related projects, or through technical assistance missions performed by qualified international and regional experts aiming to enhance the statistical capacities of NSOs’ officials. In addition, south-south partnerships can improve countries’ statistical systems through the best practices and lessons learned shared by neighboring countries. Moreover, capacity building can start within the same institution and spread nationally through the knowledge sharing between the employees of different institutions.


Arab countries are yet to go through a rough but achievable path in environment statistics, with the opportunity of developing and improving their environment statistics sector based on international guidance and standards. By ultimately reaching stronger statistical systems, the Arab countries will be able to generate comparable, timely, reliable and standardized environment statistics that can serve the nationally set priorities as well as the SDGs.


[1] Goal 7 of the MDGs: Ensure environmental sustainability includes target; 7.A on the principles of sustainable development, 7.B on reducing biodiversity loss and 7.C on sustainable access to water and sanitation, [Online]. Available at  


Therese El Gemayel is an environment, energy and statistics consultant. She has worked on development projects in the Western Asia region targeting the enhancement of statistical capacities of government officials in the data collection, validation, analysis and reporting, and the development of evidence-based policies. 


The views expressed here are solely those of the author in his/her private capacity and do not in any way represent the views of neither the Arab Development Portal nor the United Nations Development Programme. 

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