Dust and sand storms are plaguing North East Asia nearly five times as often as they were in the 1950s environment ministers from around the world learned today.
UNEP warns of “the globalization of environmental problems”
8th Special Session of the Governing Council of the United Nations Environment Programme and Global Ministerial Environment Forum, 29 to 31 March 2004
Jeju/Nairobi, 31 March 2004 – Dust and sand storms are plaguing North East Asia nearly five times as often as they were in the 1950s environment ministers from around the world learned today.
The storms, which originate in the dry regions of northern China and Mongolia and blow across the Korean peninsula and Japan, are also growing in intensity.
Scientists are predicting large storms over the coming spring months, as cold air masses from Siberia whip deserts and soils eastward after the dry continental winter.
In April 2002 dust levels in Seoul, 1200 kilometres away from their source, reached 2,070 micrograms per cubic metre, twice the level deemed hazardous to health. The storms cause considerable hardship though lost income, disruption of communications, respiratory problems and related deaths, and loss of livestock and crops over large areas.
Klaus Toepfer, Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), said North East Asia’s dust and sand storms were part of a trend of increasing natural disasters across the globe.
UNEP’s Global Environment Outlook (GEO) Yearbook 2003, launched earlier this week, states that the cost of damage from natural disasters cost topped US$60 billion for the first time last year, most of the losses coming from weather-related catastrophes.
Eighty percent of natural disasters worldwide occur in Asia. Between 1991 and 2001 natural disasters affected over 1.7 million Asians, costing US$369 billion in damages.
Scientists from Korean universities and research institutes told participants in the 8th Special Session of the Governing Council of the United Nations Environment Programme and Global Ministerial Environment Forum on Jeju Island, Republic of Korea, they are concerned that the sand and dust is binding with airborne pollutants such as soot contained within atmospheric brown clouds.
These are forming over densely populated parts of the world as a result of the burning of wood, charcoal and other so called biomass and the combustion of fossil fuels and industrial processes.
“We are worried about the creep of environmental problems – their disrespect of political boundaries - and the way they threaten to compound and disrupt the functioning of major natural systems,” Mr Toepfer said.
Mr Toepfer said UNEP was assisting governments with monitoring and early warning of dust and sand storms as part of a US$1 million project funded by the Global Environment Facility and the Asian Development Bank, with involvement of the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific and the UN Convention to Combat Desertification.
The project aims to create an initial institutional framework and a master plan to guide regional cooperation to alleviate dust and sand storms in North East Asia.
UNEP will support a network of monitoring stations throughout the region to standardise data collection, information sharing and early warning capacity – overcoming difficulties as basic as language: China’s sand storms are referred to as “Asian dust” in the Republic of Korea and “yellow sand’ or ‘Kosa” in Japan.
In China nearly 30 percent of its land area is affected by desertification due to over farming and grazing and cutting of forest, driven by population growth, and changing weather patterns, with annual direct economic losses of around US$6500 million.
UNEP’s GEO Yearbook states the Gobi Desert in China expanded by 52,400 square kilometres from 1994 to 1999, creeping ever closer to Beijing. Up to 400 million people are under threat from the fast-advancing deserts.
The Chinese Government has initiated national, regional and local legislation and action plans to address desertification through land use changes and reforestation.
Recent scientific reports suggest other desert regions could also be having unexpected effects far from home: dust storms originating in the Sahara are being linked to algal infestation of Caribbean coral reefs, which provide crucial protection for small island developing states (SIDS) - one of the areas of discussion during the Jeju meeting.
“We are seeing a globalisation of environmental problems, linked to intensity and pattern of economic development, and we need urgent and coordinated action from governments, business and civil society groups to address it,” Mr Toepfer said.
Earlier this week UNEP warned of the threat of “dead zones” in oceans due to the cascading of nitrogen and other nutrients and pollutants through ecosystems.
Government representatives from 158 nations attending the Special Session of the UNEP Governing Council and Global Ministerial Environment Forum are expected to adopt a “Jeju Initiative” later today aimed at accelerating action to address environmental decline, particularly in the areas of water, sanitation and human settlements.
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UNEP News Release 2004/17