Effective communication with the public and active dissemination of information are essential elements in the development and implementation of environmental policies.
Electronic information technologies, and especially the internet, are revolutionizing the way in which society handles information. Putting information on web sites or homepages, in addition to using conventional media, is an effective way of making it available to the growing numbers of the computer-using public, saving time and resources for both the public and public authorities and allowing the public to draw down information according to their needs and interests.
The Declaration of the Third Ministerial Conference on Environment and Health (London, 1999) states: We recognize the desirability of the public having streamlined, low-cost and timely access to high-quality environment and health information. We note that electronic information technologies are dramatically increasing the possibilities for such access and we recognize that many key institutions, organizations and agencies, including the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), UN/ECE, UNEP, UNDP, the European Commission and its European Environment Agency (EEA), and WHO in cooperation with NGOs are already making efforts towards this end. To further this objective, we request EEHC, with the involvement of NGO representatives from both the environmental and health sides, to take steps to promote the development of a comprehensive, easily accessible network of databases on environment and health issues, involving as appropriate representatives of major providers and users of environment and health information. Furthermore, we encourage governments and international organizations to incorporate this objective in their information policies.
Following a consultation in Berlin in January 1998 (6), it is recommended that a task force should be established, with the participation of representatives of WHO, ECE, UNEP, ILO, EEA and NGOs, to launch a European programme on public information on environmental health. The main objectives of this programme, which will be supported by the newly established WHO collaborating centre on public information and communication, based at the Robert Koch Institute, Berlin, are: (a) to develop a pro-active communication system, through electronic media, which will make environmental health information accessible to users at local, national and international levels; (b) to prepare popular versions of adopted political agreements; (c) to establish a common core of environmental health information available to users at all levels; and (d) to assist states to establish a common understanding of environmental health terms.
The Ã…rhus Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-Making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters (1998) requires Parties to make environmental information progressively available on the internet, with emphasis on certain categories of information. At national level, governments should identify categories of environmental information to be made available through the internet. At international level, a comprehensive, integrated, user-friendly network of databases on environmental issues should be established, with a view to providing the public throughout a region with streamlined, low-cost and timely access to environmental information through the internet. This can be achieved by: (a) establishing and improving linkages between existing databases; (b) filling gaps in data and improving the comparability of data; (c) developing and applying state-of-the-art criteria for deciding what constitutes user-friendly access; (d) identifying and as far as possible implementing measures to increase the extent of public access to the Internet in the Region, including the provision of technical and financial assistance; and (e), coordination with similar initiatives aimed at meeting the requirements of scientific, regulatory and other bodies.
As a result of work on National Environmental Health Action Plans (NEHAPs), a need has been identified to develop or improve national environmental health information systems (EHISs) to make them capable of detecting the emergence of new problems, monitoring the effects of interventions, and facilitating assessment of the state of environmental health throughout the European region.
The Dublin Declaration on Access to Environmental Information (September 2000) calls on countries to enhance networking and coordinating mechanisms, primarily in the form of consortia of key environmental information suppliers from both the governmental, non-governmental and private sectors to achieve a sustainable interactive information system as well as improving international cooperation. In recognition of UNEP as the global authority in the field of the environment, the Dublin Declaration calls on Governments to support UNEP in the development of a global environmental portal on the Internet. National consortia are encouraged to use web-based technologies and to establish protocols and standards for delivering an integrated information service in each country. Governments participating in the enhanced UNEP-INFOTERRA global network are urged to appoint focal points for policy-level and operational-level matters related to the delivery of high quality information and data on the environment.
Many members of the public do not currently have either direct or indirect access to the internet. There is a need to increase the numbers of people who have internet, e.g. through a computer terminals in public information centres, in order to develop internet environmental information platforms.