UNEP delivers encouraging news to ASEAN environment ministers

News and Press Release
Originally published
Forest Fires Emergency in Indonesia: Positive Response from the International Community
The United Nations Environment Programme(UNEP) will tell environment ministers attending the 5th Association of South East Asean Nations (ASEAN) Ministers Meeting on Haze, today in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, that the international community's response to the forest fires emergency in Indonesia has been positive.

Ministers will learn that donors have responded, both with cash and direct assistance, to a joint appeal for emergency assistance to the region made by UNEP and the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) earlier this year.

"Over US$ 300,000 has been raised, as well as considerable direct support from donor countries," said Klaus Toepfer, Executive Director of UNEP, and coordinator of the UN system's response to the Indonesian fires emergency. "The funds will address needs for fire-fighting equipment and training, with their exact use to be determined by the Government of Indonesia in cooperation with the UN Resident Coordinator in Jakarta," he said.

The appeal, made on the basis of recommendations from fire-fighting experts meeting in Geneva, in April, was made at a time when fires raged in large parts of Indonesia's East Kalimantan province, threatening much of the region with detrimental smog. With the twin objectives of containing and preventing the recurrence of fires in priority areas, aid priorities were identified as fire-fighting packages and other specialised equipment, expert advice, training, aerial surveillance, and enhanced communications.

In response to the joint UNEP/OCHA appeal, Germany has provided approximately US$ 5.5 million in direct assistance for 15 fire-fighting vehicles, forest protection equipment for 50 teams of 20 persons each, small mobile water treatment plants and drilling equipment. The United States is contributing an additional US$ 2 million for emergency purposes in 1998 - this is in addition to US$ 3.5 million provided earlier. Other countries also responded and contributed equipment, experts, and cash - notably, Norway and New Zealand.

Countries in the region have taken steps to help mitigate the problem. Singapore, for example, has provided communications equipment, and Malaysia has trained Indonesian fire-fighters as part of the Sub-Regional Fire-fighting Arrangement worked out among the countries most affected by the disaster.

"The response so far is encouraging, but we must do more," said Toepfer. "UNEP and OCHA are continuing to appeal to donors for priority items," he said.

The ASEAN meeting will also hear that UNEP, which has made early warning and emergency response one of its main areas of concentration, is implementing a project to help the affected countries design and establish a "fires early warning and response system". The US$ 750,000 project, funded by the Global Environmental Facility (GEF), will use a combination of aircraft surveillance and satellite imagery to spot fires early after they break out, and so help fire-fighting teams to respond quickly to control the situation.

"This week, we plan to release funds for the GEF project earmarked for aerial surveillance of priority areas of Sumatra," said Toepfer. "These areas were identified by the ASEAN Haze Technical Task Force, so that GEF funds will complement the assistance provided by Malaysia and Indonesia under the Sub-regional Fire-Fighting Arrangement," he said.

UNEP is also currently discussing with the United States Government the need for satellite surveillance with high resolution sensors. This is part of a plan to start an early warning system for the whole ASEAN sub-region from August 1998 to April 1999.

Note to Editors

The fires that swept through large areas of Indonesia in 1997 and again earlier this year were unprecedented in their scope and consequences. Smoke and haze, much of it from smoldering swamps and surface coal seams, severely affected millions of people in South-East Asia, contributing to the severe economic difficulties in the region. The fires, many intentionally set to clear land for plantations or other agricultural activities, grew out of control because of extremely dry conditions brought on by the El Nino phenomenon.

For more information, please contact:

Tore Brevik, Director of UNEP Information and Public Affairs on tel. (+254-2) 623292, or Robert Bisset on tel. (+254-2) 623084, fax. (+254-2) 623692, e-mail.

UNEP News Release 1998/80