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Sand Storms Worsening*

Asian Sandstorms Intensifying, Response Far Off

Wed March 31, 2004 06:40 AM ET

By Jack Kim

SOGWIPO, South Korea (Reuters) - Dust and sand storms have plagued Northeast Asia for centuries but are getting worse in modern times, environment officials said on Wednesday.

Storms affect the region nearly five times as frequently as they did five decades ago, but strategies remain elusive, delegates from 158 countries were told on the final day of a United Nations Environment Program conference.

"They are man-made and nature-influenced disaster," the executive director of the UN Environment Program, Klaus Toepfer, told a forum on Wednesday.

"In the past 40 years, there has been a huge increase in the occurrence of the event, not only the number but the intensity has increased," he said.

South Korean officials have warned that the sand and dust in the storm capture and carry pollutants including heavy minerals that present dangers to human health.

Dust and sand storms originate in the dry regions of northern China and Mongolia and blow across the Korean Peninsula and Japan, causing respiratory ailments and disrupting transportation and industry.

"A mixture of natural and human elements, weather conditions and in particular desertification creates a complicated situation that makes effective response very difficult," said South Korean meteorological agency researcher Chun Young-sin in a report.


The South Korean island of Cheju was feeling the effect of the latest dust and sand storm Wednesday, even after the national weather agency's warning that had been expected to be issued before dawn was withdrawn.

The rest of the country was suffering the first major bout of sand and dust blowing in from the west, called Yellow Sand in South Korea. An advisory was issued Tuesday for most of the mainland as dust particles reached 50 micrograms per cubic meter.

The storms transcend borders and complicate responses.

South Korea, Japan and China have established a system of monitoring and early warning of dust and sand storms, and the U.N. Environment Program is also assisting governments as part of a $1 million project funded by the Global Environment Facility and the Asian Development Bank. The history of dust and sand storms goes back by at least a 1,000 years, Chun said, citing a record dated March 1550.

"The tiles on the house roof, grass on the fields and leaves on the trees were entirely covered by yellow and white dusts; When the dust was swept, it wiped away like dirt," it said.

The storms have occurred sporadically over the past century, raging in some years while nearly absent in others. But there is evidence that the storms are gradually intensifying in recent years.

The storms in the region peaked in the spring two years ago, when Seoul recorded dust particle levels of 2,500 micrograms per cubic meter, more than twice the level deemed hazardous to health.

On the same March day, Beijing recorded nearly six times the dust particle level of 12,000 micrograms per cubic meter.

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