Our Common Concerns – The 7th Ministerial Conference on Environment and Health

The 7th Ministerial Conference on Environment and Health happened at a crucial time, with the triple planetary threat of climate change, biodiversity loss and environmental pollution causing “unprecedented and rapidly unfolding impacts on our lives, threatening eco-systems, human and animal health and well-being across generations in our Region”– as stated in the adopted declaration.  

Together with a delegation of partners, we made our voices heard at the 7MCEH in Budapest, taking place from 5-7 July 2023. WECF convened the EcoForum delegation, which is a coalition of sustainable development NGOs who actively engage in promoting sustainable development in official Pan-European processes. The small, yet powerful delegation, consisted of partners from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Armenia, North Macedonia, Ukraine, Hungary, Bulgaria, Germany and The Netherlands. As a delegation we shared several common concerns for our region, including on issues such as a lack of clean water, sanitation and menstrual health services, which disproportionately affect women and girls. We cooperated closely with the civil society from our partners of Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL). 

We actively engaged in the conference through different parts of the process, including presentations, interventions and providing input into the text of the declaration itself. Sascha Gabizon, Executive Director of WECF: “we were able to get references to the right to a clean, safe and healthy environment, as well as menstrual health, added to the Ministerial Declaration!”

Rebecca Heuvelmans (WECF), presenting the poster on “The Right to Safe Sanitation and Toxic Free Menstruation”

Toxic Free Menstruation & Safe Sanitation 

On this subject, we presented a poster in the exhibition of the conference, highlighting the right to safe sanitation and toxic free menstruation. According to the investigation of our partner Journalists for Human Rights in North Macedonia, 15% of the interviewed menstruators do not have access to any traditional menstrual products. They use old textiles, toilet paper or even newspapers. Not only should menstruators have access to a wide variety of free/affordable products, but they should also be safe to use. Menstrual products are sometimes made up of 90 percent petroleum-based plastics and can contain dangerous chemicals which have been linked to the development of numerous diseases. Therefore, we also presented sustainable, toxic-free alternatives and educational materials on the subject, to open up the dialogue on this important issue affecting half of the population.  

Access to safe water and sanitation was also on the top of our agenda. Together with project partners from the Balkan region, we presented a poster on our successful long-term programme, in which 70 schools have conducted activities related to WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene) and WSSP (water and sanitation safety planning), like testing water sources for nitrate concentrations. All activities are based on the World Health Organization’s water safety planning guidelines.

Katalin Tarr lin (Clean Air Action Group Hungary), Anna Kirilenko (BIOM Kyrgyzstan), Sascha Gabizon (WECF International)

Taking the Floor 

A safe school environment with access to clean drinking water and safe sanitation is crucial for the health of future generations. Our partner Anna Kirilenko representing NGO BIOM, Kyrgyzstan, underlined this point in her intervention, highlighting our partnership on promoting healthy environments in schools. The programme started as a pilot in 20 schools and grew to influence national legislation. “It is a real success”, shared Anna proudly in the plenary hall, “now already one-third of schools have established healthy educational environment councils where students, parents, communities and teachers and relevant stakeholders develop and implement measures to improve school safety and to adapt to climate change”. Аs a result of this  activity, about a million schoolchildren now have the opportunity to study in an improved healthy environment. 

Svitlana Slesarenok from Black Sea Women’s Club Ukraine, also took the floor urging those attending to take action for “your children, your grandchildren”. The Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant had been surrounded by mines and explosives, which could cause a nuclear disaster. “It will lead to terrible health impacts of our people,.. in Russia, in Ukraine, in the region,” stressed Svitlana. She pleaded with decision-makers to safeguard full access of The International Atomic Energy Agency to secure the site and protect the region.

Katalin Tarr (Clean Air Action Group), speaking in the panel session on the main stage

Lastly, our delegate member from Budapest took the stage during the event on “Acting in Partnership”.  Katalin Tarr from Clean Air Action Group, highlighted success stories of civil society engagement in Central Europe. For example, due to the efforts of the Clean Air Action Group, “2,000-3,000 tons of mostly hazardous chemicals including DDT and large quantities of carcinogenic benzene, that had been laying around for decades on a piece of land not far from here, – towards the center of Budapest, – were finally removed and destroyed.” She also provided the following to-do list for the participants to foster true partnerships with civil society: 

  • Extend public participation rights 
  • Build on good civil society practices, and integrate them into national programmes and legislation 
  • Provide support and resources

We hope that all attendees take these to-do’s to heart and include civil society in their actions to address the triple planetary threat. We will continue to do our part for a just and healthy planet for all.  

With special thanks to the EcoForum delegation consisting of: 

  • Black Sea Women’s Club, Ukraine 
  • Journalists for Human Rights- JHR, North Macedonia 
  • Armenian Women for health and health environment-A WHHE, Armenia 
  • Ecological Movement “BIOM”, Kyrgyzstan 
  • Centre for sustainable production and consumption-CSPC, Kazakhstan 
  • The Little Earth, Tajikistan  
  • Union for Defence of the Aral Sea and Amu Darya, Uzbekistan 
  • Clean Air Action Group, Hungary

We are grateful to the German Federal Ministry of Environment and the Toxic-Free Future project for their travel support. Further information on the Ministerial Conference on Environment and Health can be found on the official website: https://www.who.int/europe/publications/i/item/EURO-Budapest2023-6 

See also our social media coverage: 

Katalin Tarr’s speech: https://twitter.com/WECF_INT/status/1677303522876874752?s=20 

Svitlana Slesarenok’s speech: https://twitter.com/WECF_INT/status/1676867530923573249?s=20 

Our joint exhibition stand with ECOFORUM and HEAL: https://twitter.com/WECF_INT/status/1676516549476118529?s=20