Since Kofi Annan appointed Mr Töpfer as Coordinator of the United Nations response to the fires, he has taken immediate steps to strengthen the joint UNEP/Office of the Coordinator for Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) unit, to allow it to plan a central role in the operations now being undertaken.
On Saturday 28 March 1998, a United Nations Assessment and Coordination Team (UNDAC) is scheduled to leave Geneva for Indonesia. This team will be composed of four fire-fighting members from OCHA and three environmental experts from UNEP. An OCHA/UNEP team is also on stand-by to fly to Brazil this weekend where fires are now rapidly spreading deep into the rainforest and over a million hectares of savannah woodland have already burnt.
The aim of both missions is to assist the governments' priorities in fighting the fires. The teams will look at the assistance being provided from all other sources and assess the extent of damage caused and the threat to irreplaceable biodiversity and wildlife.
The UNEP experts will concentrate on damage assessment and the use of remote-sensing technology. The intention is to identify gaps in current assistance being provided so that additional resources can be mobilized quickly and effectively.
To aid these efforts the Global Environmental Facility (GEF) is in the process of providing immediate financial assistance of US$750,000.
Mr. Töpfer plans to convene an expert group meeting of fire-fighters in Geneva on 20 April 1998, to be followed by a donors conference on 21 April to solicit additional funds based on the recommendations of the fire-fighting experts.
It is still too early to calculate the full costs of the fires in Indonesia and Brazil. But, a rich source of biodiversity (and future medicines) has been wiped out forever, and vast quantities of carbon dioxide have been released into the atmosphere. Millions of people have been exposed to unknown risks from smoke inhalation.
"All this points to the need for a much improved early-warning system and a concerted response from the international community," said Mr. Töpfer. "Fire-fighting is one thing, but tackling the underlying causes is more important in the long run," he said.
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UNEP News Release 1998/14