Thu, Apr 01, 2004 - Page 5 News List

Dust storms intensifying, UN says


A man walks through a dust cloud on a sidewalk in Beijing on Monday. A dust storm hit the capital Monday, delaying flights at the airport, a day after sand storms blanketed other parts of northern China, reducing visibility to 10m in some places.


Dangerous dust storms in Asia have intensified fivefold over the past half-century, posing health and economic hazards as part of global trend toward bigger natural disasters, the UN warned yesterday.

The dust storms originate in the desert regions of Mongolia and increasingly China, where 30 percent of the land is parched by over-farming, overgrazing, deforestation and changing weather patterns, the UN Environment Program (UNEP) said.

The sands whip up as far away as the Korean Peninsula, Japan and the Pacific basin, for a combined economic loss of US$6.5 billion a year, UNEP said.

Cities like Seoul become shrouded in a haze of "yellow dust" that sometimes leaves a film of grit. In severe cases, it forces school closures and airline cancelations, can disrupt communications and damage crops and livestock.

Unlike similar storms from Africa's remote Sahara Desert, the Asian storms pose serious health risks because the dust particles pick up toxic pollutants from Chinese industry.

During a South Korean dust storm in April 2002, dust levels reached 2,070 micrograms per cubic meter, twice the level deemed hazardous to health, UNEP said.

Since the 1950s, the frequency of Asian sand storms has increased five times, UNEP said. The Gobi Desert in China alone expanded by 52,400km2 from 1994-1999, according to UNEP's GEO Global Year Book.

The new findings were released as environment ministers from around the world gathered at a UN environment summit aimed at sustainable development.

Ironically, the news comes a day after the Korea Meteorological Administration issued a dust alert for much of South Korea, urging care for those with respiratory problems.

"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," UNEP executive director Klaus Toepfer said.

The dust storms are part of a larger trend of increasing natural disasters, UNEP said.

It cited the record heatwave in Europe that killed thousands last summer, widespread flooding in China that left millions homeless last July, the recent appearance of a hurricane in the South Atlantic for the first time and a record season of tornadoes in North America.

The cost of damage from dust storms, hurricanes, tornadoes and other weather-related catastrophes topped US$60 billion for the first time last year, according to UNEP.

About 80 percent of such disasters worldwide occur in Asia, affecting 1.7 million people and inflicting US$369 billion in damage from 1991-2001.

UNEP is working with governments and the Asian Development Bank on a US$1 million early warning system for dust and sand storms in the region. The system will use a network of monitoring stations to standardize data.

Recent research shows that dust storms originating from the Sahara Desert trigger algae infestations of coral reefs as far away as the Caribbean Sea.

Those sands pose less of a risk to human health because they are relatively cleaner than the Asian variety, UNEP spokesman Nick Nuttall said.

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