UNDAC Mission to Russian Federation in connection with large-scale forest fires in the Far East (30 September – 14 October 1998)
In the context of the devastating forest fires which have been affecting Russian Far East territories, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), in cooperation with the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), fielded a United Nations Disaster Assessment and Coordination (UNDAC) Team. The UNDAC Team has been working in close cooperation with the Russian Ministry of Emergencies and other relevant national bodies. The Team carried out on-site assessments in the fire-affected Island of Sakhalin and in the Khabarovsk Krai (Territory).
The Team has concluded that the Russian Far East is facing a large-scale emergency of international significance, caused by massive, uncontrolled forest fires. Total area burned by fires up to now in both Khabarovsk Krai (Territory) and Sakhalin Island is about 2 million hectars (ha). The affected area is roughly equivalent to the total area of Switzerland. It is comparable to areas affected during recent fires in Indonesia and Brazil. This disaster has brought enormous damage to the environment and various sectors of the Russian economy. The Russian Far East has already lost approximately 15 million cubic metres of timber as a result of the on-going fires. Annual timber production in Khabarovsk Krai (one of most important in Russia) is some 4,5 million cubic metres. Huge territories are totally destroyed, from an environmental perspective.
The physical causal agent in the current emergency situation has been an extensive period of drought. The underlying cause is financial and structural. In different circumstances, it is likely that the fires would not constitute such a large scale emergency.
Given the nature of the affected area, it could take between 100-120 years for large forest areas to recover. The fires affect important habitats of rare and endangered species such as the Amur Tiger. Two Ramsar Wetlands of international importance and two Zapovednik protected nature reserves are within the affected area. Unique landscapes are reported to have been lost.
In Sakhalin, one village was burned down, three people died and some 800 people left homeless. Long-term negative effects on human health may be important. Over 1 million people have been affected during significant periods of time by smoke (containing small particulate matters) and carbon monoxide (CO). On 14 October, the city of Khabarovsk was totally covered by smoke. As a consequence, the international airport and the key river port were closed.
This emergency is internationally significant. There are at least three implications: possible effects on global climate, potential transboundary air pollution (now becoming real with smoke moving to China), and large-scale destruction of biodiversity (including many endangered species of international significance).
It is not excluded that next May (in roughly six months) the situation may be similar (drought combined with a very difficult economic situation). In this case, forest fires would be a full-fledged catastrophy.
It is unlikely that the Russian fire fighters, emergency specialists and foresters would need foreign expertise and advice. They have all the necessary experience and knowledge, as they face regular forest fires in different parts of the country. In the past, Russian authorities were able to cope with this problem. However, this year they are completely overwhelmed by a combination of an exceptionally long drought and an economic crisis. All relevant national forces and services are involved in fire fighting. But their technical means are very far from being sufficient, and personnel are exhausted. As a result, the disaster situation is out of control. The Russian fire fighters are hardly able to protect human settlements, pipe-lines and the most important installations located nearby.
It should be underlined that the fires are still raging. In Sakhalin, the situation has improved slightly, as some rains fell. At the same time, in Khabarovsk Krai the situation is becoming worse because drought continues, and winds become stronger.
Consequently, the Russian Far East needs urgent international assistance. The UNDAC Team has identified three priority areas for external aid:
First: fire fighting equipment and related items. This includes pumps, hoses, backpack sprayers, shovels, and protective clothes for fire fighters. Tents and sleeping bags are also needed.
Secondly: telecommunications. Relevant services badly need radio stations, transmitters and receivers of different ranges. It would ensure the necessary contacts between operation centres, ground forces, and aerial support.
Thirdly: early warning. In spite of the fact that Russians have access to basic satellite data, it is not sufficiently detailed. Efficient aerial surveillance is crucial. Most of the aircraft and helicopters are unserviceable. There is an urgent need for spare parts and fuel.
Practically all the above items (except high-quality protection gear) are produced in the country. Consequently, the best way to provide assistance would be to make cash contributions to OCHA, who would transfer them to the Office of the UN Resident Coordinator in Moscow, which would make the necessary arrangements for local purchase.
During the mission, the UNDAC Team received full cooperation and support from the Russian Ministry of Emergencies, the Federal Forestry Service, the State Committee on Environment, their regional/local representatives, as well as from the Administrations of Sakhalin and Khabarovsk Krai.
Following the completion of its mission, the UNDAC Team returned to Geneva on 15 October. An Information meeting, with donors and international organizations, took place on Monday, 19 October in Geneva. The information on the findings of the mission was received with great interest (and concern on account of the reported size of the problem, its impact and the likely consequences, also in view of the deteriorating national capacity to deal with the emergency – also in the likely event of its re-occurence). A list of requirements for urgent international assistance (totalling some US$ 2,5 million) was made available to the participants.
The Joint UNEP/OCHA Environment Unit of the Disaster Response Branch of OCHA and the Regional Desk will continue staying in close touch with the Russian authorities, and donors, in order to mobilize and coordinate assistance, as required.