N. Korea killing forests, waterways, U.N. finds

A boat pulls recently cut timber in North Korea, where  the U.N. Environment Program said logging practices are destroying wilderness areas.
A boat pulls recently cut timber in North Korea, where  the U.N. Environment Program said logging practices are destroying wilderness areas.UNEP
/ Source: The Associated Press

North Korea’s forests are depleted, its rivers and streams are filled with runoff from factories and a reliance on coal energy has created severe urban air pollution, the United Nations said Friday in its first report on the communist nation’s environment.

The evaluation by the U.N. Environment Program was completed late last year with the assistance of the North Korean government. But its release was delayed until a delegation from the North visited the agency’s headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya, to sign an agreement Thursday on future cooperation to protect the environment.

North Korea “has shown its willingness to engage with the global community to safeguard its environmental resources and we must respond so it can meet development goals in a sustainable manner,” U.N. Environmental Program Executive Director Klaus Toepfer said in a statement.

Still, in releasing the report, UNEP acknowledged “a paucity of research and data on which to base reliable environmental assessments.”

The country’s forests have fallen victim to its fast-growing population — estimated at more than 24 million — and their energy needs, along with natural disasters and efforts to convert forests to farmland, the report said.

Pollution of rivers and streams has become severe, according to the report, which noted a dozen factories discharge some 39,200 cubic yards of waste each day into the Taedong River running through the capital, Pyongyang. Urgent investment also is needed in the country’s water treatment and purification systems, the agency said.

Meanwhile, the North’s reliance on coal to general power and heat homes has created “serious urban air pollution problems,” the agency said, but no reliable studies have been done to evaluate how that has affected people’s health.

The North has depended on outside help to feed its people since 1995. It is still struggling to become self-sufficient in food production with continuing poor crop yields due to natural disasters — as well as the overuse of chemicals and shortages of fertilizer, farm machinery and oil, the agency said.

The U.N. World Food Program said last week the collapse of North Korea’s economy has caused food prices to skyrocket so high that some people can’t afford what they need to survive.

To help remedy the food shortage, the U.N. Environment Program said farmers should expand use of restorative practices, including tree planting and use of organic fertilizers.

The full UNEP report is online at www.unep.org.