Johannesburg - South Africa's natural environment has, over the past 20 years, deteriorated nearly the fastest of most countries in the world, Beeld newspaper reported on Monday.

This was the finding of a group of scientists at the universities of Yale and Columbia, in the United States, who measured the state of the environment in 132 countries, in collaboration with the World Economic Forum.

South Africa was in 128th place, with Iraq last on the list.

Using 22 indicators, researchers found the Swiss had managed and conserved their natural environment the best.

Swiss air and water quality, biodiversity and the management and conservation of ecosystems were found to be the best in the world. According to the report, it was clear South Africa's air and water quality, biodiversity, the functioning of its ecosystems, and its agricultural and fishery systems, had seriously deteriorated.

The researchers also measured and compared the current state of human health with that in 1992.

The Wildlife and Environment Society of SA said the findings were shocking. Director Garth Barnes said it was clear that environmental laws in South Africa were not being applied, even though the country had some of the best environmental legislation in the world.

The full report is available online at www.epi.yale.edu. - Sapa