8th Special Session of the Governing Council of the United Nations
Environment Programme and the 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
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
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