Heat is on for world's fireman

Water shortage and financial crisis are hampering the work of a UN task force, reports Geoffrey Lean
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The Independent Online
A WORLD-WIDE campaign is to be launched to try to douse Indonesia's forest fires, which last autumn covered six countries with suffocating smog, as evidence mounts that they are likely to cause an even greater disaster this year.

Kofi Annan, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, last week appointed one of his top officials to co-ordinate international firefighting efforts at the urgent request of Asian environment ministers, and this week the new global firemen will begin to draw up a strategy at a meeting with other UN agencies in Geneva.

The official in the hot seat, Professor Klaus Topfer - who calls the impending crisis a "nightmare" - could be forgiven for thinking he had just jumped out of the frying pan into the fire; for he has just left one of the trickiest jobs in Germany's government - moving the federal capital from Bonn to Berlin - to be put in charge of what he believes is just one of the first of a series of global environmental emergencies.

Professor Topfer, a long-serving member of the German cabinet, has been with the UN for less than a month as the new head of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP). He told the Independent on Sunday last week that there were already 1,000 "hot spots" from new fires and unextinguished old ones in the forests in Kalimantan, the Indonesian part of the island of Borneo.

The fires have been lit earlier in the year than before, and already a haze is beginning to form over the region. "This seems to be even more serious than last year," he said. "It threatens to be a nightmare in its repercussions on the environment, health and the economy."

Last year's fires, which burned more than 1.7 million acres of forest, shrouded six countries in choking smog from September to November. More than 20 million people fell ill from respiratory disease, and more than 1,000 died. Schoolchildren could hardly see their blackboards, aircraft and ships crashed in the poor visibility, and tourism was ruined.

Professor Topfer says that, at a conservative estimate, the fires cost the countries more than $2bn (pounds 1.25bn). They produced as much carbon dioxide, the main cause of global warming, as Europe emits in a year, and their revival threatens one of the world's most ecologically rich areas: the forests are home to at least one-tenth of the earth's species.

The former professor of regional research and development at Hanover University was persuaded to leave the German cabinet after 11 years - first as Minister for the Environment, then as Minister for Regional Planning - to try to rescue the ailing UNEP as its new executive director. Two weeks ago, while attending a UNEP meeting on controlling the transport of toxic waste, at Kuching, in the Malaysian part of Borneo, he was approached by environment ministers from eight Asian countries who asked that he co-ordinate an urgent international campaign.

A few days later he put their plea to Mr Annan in New York, and last week was given charge of co-ordinating the operation. Mr Annan has also contacted Indonesia's President Suharto to say that an attempt to bring help is under way.

Professor Topfer has three main tasks. The first is to try to prevent the fires breaking out; this year, he admits, it is too late in many cases, but he hopes that the outbreaks can be limited. The second is to monitor the fires, a relatively easy task, thanks to "wonderful satellite photographs" of the area. The third is to co-ordinate international firefighting action. Last year there was a great deal of activity from governments, UN agencies, and financial institutions such as the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank, but much of the help was piecemeal.

"The global family must now co-ordinate all its efforts to overcome this problem," Professor Topfer. "I am totally convinced that it can do so."

The campaign faces formidable obstacles, ranging from the financial crisis in Indonesia to the lack of water in the area for fighting the fires. Using seawater is no solution, because it would cause ecological damage of its own by making the soil salty.

In the meantime Professor Topfer has to try to save UNEP, supposedly the environmental conscience of the UN, in reality one of its most imperilled bodies. It has suffered severe cuts in funding by rich countries and its head admits that it now has a "very low profile". British environment ministers believe, however, that he has already made a difference to the ailing agency.

Cronyism in crisis, page 17