Environment, Europe, Headlines

ENVIRONMENT: Victims of Chernobyl Call on Donors for Help

Jennifer Sieg

UNITED NATIONS, Apr 27 2001 (IPS) - Fifteen years after the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear reactor accident, the United Nations says that increased and continued international funding for humanitarian projects is vital to address the environmental, socio-economic and health implications of the disaster.

Of the 90 million dollars in estimated funding, the international community has so far pledged only about 1.5 million dollars for rehabilitation projects.

“After fifteen years, the devastating impact of the explosion of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor continues to affect the daily lives of millions of people in Belarus, the Russian Federation and Ukraine,” UN Secretary- General Kofi Annan said Thursday on the occasion of the 15th anniversary of the nuclear accident.

“Indeed the legacy of Chernobyl will be with us, and with our descendants, for generations to come,” said Annan. “As we mark this sombre anniversary, the international community must do far more to help those who live with the invisible, yet very real consequences of this disaster,” he warned.

Representatives from Belarus, the Russian Federation, and Ukraine joined the Secretary-General in his plea for international co-operation and increased funding.

“We need to move from spontaneous emergency assistance to ensure long-term viability in this region. For that, we will need international assistance,” said Ambassador Sergei Ling of the Republic of Belarus.

“We would like to express hope that the international community will hear the appeal of the Secretary-General because the need in the future will be more, not less,” noted Ambassador Sergey Lavrov of the Russian Federation.

On Apr. 26, 1986, two powerful explosions destroyed the Unit 4 reactor of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in a remote corner of Ukraine, exposing the burning core and releasing 50 million curies of radioactive isotopes into the environment – the equivalent to 500 Hiroshima bombs.

The meltdown contaminated an area of over 160,000 square kilometres surrounding the power plant, affecting the lives of over seven million people, including more than three million children.

In 1997, the Inter-Agency Programme of International Assistance to the Chernobyl disaster defined 60 aid projects requiring a total of 90 million dollars. Of this sum, the international donor community pledged only 1.5 million dollars.

As a result of the meagre response, a reassessment in 1998 slashed the original number of aid programmes to just nine priority projects – three in each of the affected countries – with a total budget of 9.5 million dollars.

The projects include forest rehabilitation, construction and modernisation of hospitals and research centres, the development of social and psychological centres for victims of the disaster, environmental decontamination projects, and cancer screening programmes for exposed children.

“Even the worst-funded appeals are better funded than Chernobyl,” lamented Christelle Loupforest of the Office for Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the UN body that is charged with mobilising resources for humanitarian emergencies.

Kenzo Oshima, UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, says the long-term effects of the disaster have only begun to be felt.

“Unlike other emergencies, the consequences of Chernobyl do not fade away. They actually grow increasingly uncertain and more intense,” he warned.

So far, the biggest visible consequence has been a drastic increase in thyroid cancer. Oshima says over 11,000 cases have already been reported in the affected region – over 100 times more than before the event, and evidence of other types of cancer and radiation-related illnesses may not emerge for years to come.

Dr. Serhiy Komisarenko, director of the Palladin Biochemistry Institute in Kiev, detailed indications of immune suppression in individuals exposed to low-dose radiation after Chernobyl, dubbed “Chernobyl AIDS”.

Komarisarenko admits that the “precise negative impact of Chernobyl on the health of surrounding populations is quite difficult to estimate”. It extends beyond the direct physical consequences of radiation exposure to affect psychosocial and economic factors, as well.

The contamination of agricultural land has severely restricted agricultural production and animal husbandry, and hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced from their homes in the contaminated regions.

The Ukrainian government has also had to address the displacement of hundreds of skilled workers, as well as the loss of part of its energy supply after it closed the plant in December 2000.

In 1997, the European Union, the United States and Ukraine launched the Shelter Improvement Plan (SIP), developed to construct a protective “sarcophagus” that would insulate that wrecked reactor unit and protect people and the environment from the threat of the huge radioactive inventory inside.

The estimated cost of the project is 768 million dollars. Oshima, who is also the UN Co-ordinator for International Co-operation on Chernobyl, says countries have been generous in their commitments to address the technical aspects of the tragedy, but they have largely ignored its humanitarian consequences.

“Enormous resources are still required to address the social, economic, health, environmental and psychosocial effects of the Chernobyl accident. Thanks to the generosity of many countries, the construction of the Sarcophagus should be entirely completed by 2005. I would urge donors to show the same level of generosity in supporting socio-economic rehabilitation in the affected areas,” he said.

Oshima says if all donors were to contribute one to two percent of their shelter fund donations to humanitarian programmes, they would raise between 10 million and 15 million dollars to help the people afflicted by the disaster.

The Chernobyl commemoration in New York included the opening of the exhibit ‘Black Wind, White Land – Living with Chernobyl’ as well as a Peace Bell Ceremony to mark the anniversary at the UN Headquarters.

It was part of the Tenth International Conference on Health and the Environment, which was organised by World Information Transfer and co-sponsored by the governments of Greece and Ukraine.

The conference focused on escalating environmental illnesses and the economics of continued environmental neglect.

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