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Environmental crisis in South East Asia is far from over

London/Nairobi, 14 May 1998 - "The environmental crisis of forest fires in South East Asia is far from over," said Mr. Klaus Töpfer, Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). Reacting to reports of sporadic rainfall in East Kalimantan, Indonesia, Töpfer, who was asked by Secretary-General Kofi Annan to coordinate the United Nations response to the fires, warned that, "A repetition of the emergency of 1997 is quite possible. This is not the time to be complacent," he said.

According to United Nations sources, the rainfall in East Kalimantan is very localised and the intensity varies considerably throughout the province. Fires are still burning in many locations, and with the imminent start of the dry season new fires can be expected in various parts of Indonesia and other parts of South East Asia at any time.

The lack of available fresh water is also a matter of great concern. Water levels in rivers are extremely low and some lakes have completely disappeared. Salt water is penetrating far into the Mahakam river and its tributaries, and there is virtually no water supply in the main cities of Balikpapan and Samarinda. As a consequence, water is sold for very high prices, hygiene conditions are worsening, and there is the very real threat that large city fires would be impossible to extinguish.

"Clearly the recent rainfall has not been adequate," said Töpfer. "This issue must stay at the top of the international agenda, or we may be faced with a disaster of extreme proportions," he said.

Last weekend, G8 Foreign Ministers, meeting ahead of the Birmingham Summit, committed themselves to the implementation of an Action Programme on Forests, adding that "recent large scale forest fires lend urgency to this task."

"While I welcome the Action Programme, I must repeat my appeal to donors for urgent financial assistance to deal with the immediate forest fire problem," said Töpfer. "We cannot afford to wait for the smog to return before we act," he said.

Last month in Geneva, Töpfer presented a $US 10 million short-term action plan to donor countries. Under his leadership, the plan, which covers the provision of essential equipment and training for local fire-fighters, the appropriate use of aircraft, operational management, communications and support to government liaison teams, was put together by a group of the world's top fire-fighting experts. To date, the donor response has been not sufficient.

Over 300,000 hectares have burned in East Kalimantan this year. The drought linked to the El Nino phenonomen is in part responsible for this dramatic damage, but most fires are man-made, to clear land for shifting-agriculture, agro-industrial crops and forestry operations.

"While it is my hope that the international community will do more to assist Indonesia and the whole region, I am confident that the national authorities will also take appropriate steps with regard to land use policies if we are to prevent the situation from recurring again and again," said Töpfer. This should also be linked to information campaigns, awareness building and capacity development at the local level," he said.

******* Note to journalists:

Mr. Klaus Töpfer will hold a press conference at 11.15 a.m., at the Royal Lankaster Hotel, London, on Thursday 14 May. For more information, contact: Mr. Ahmad Fawzi, Director, UN Information Centre, London, on tel. (44-171) 630-1981, fax. (44-171) 976-6478

For more information, please contact:

Mr. Robert Bisset
UNEP Media and Communications Officer
Nairobi, Kenya
Tel: +254-2-623084, Fax: +254-2-623692

UNEP Web Site:

UNEP News Release 1998/27

Thursday 14 May 1998
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