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UN Says Environment of Indian Ocean Islands Degraded

The United Nations Thursday warned that pollution and natural disasters are degrading the environments of island nations in the Indian Ocean. U.N. officials said the recent tsunami has made existing environmental problems much worse.

In four reports released ahead of an international conference on the future of small island nations, the U.N. Environment Program, or UNEP, gives dire warnings for the Maldives, Comoros, Seychelles, and Mauritius.

UNEP says all the islands face severe freshwater shortages because of factors such as overuse, a disease that affects trees, and the el-Nino current.

The little water there is, says the U.N., is largely contaminated by fertilizers and industrial and human waste, causing water-borne diseases such as cholera.

The head of UNEP's assessment branch, Ivar Baste, told reporters that the islands are also vulnerable to sea level rises due to climate change and natural disasters such as tsunamis.

He specifically referred to the Maldives, where he said 80 percent of the islands are less than one meter above sea level.

"One of the scenarios outlined is that large areas of the Maldives could be under water in 30 years of time, and with the entire community submerged by 2100," he said.

UNEP officials said the recent Asian tsunami has greatly exacerbated existing environmental problems, especially in Seychelles and the Maldives.

"In some of the coastal areas, we believe that farmers as far as five kilometers inland may have been affected and, in some cases, have had their crops destroyed by salt water," said UNEP spokesman Eric Falt. "Mud and sand have covered many of the affected areas. The expeditious removal of the massive amount of waste and debris is really crucial to prevent further environmental pollution and the risk to the human health that it entails."

Mr. Falt said his agency is concerned that chemical storage sites, ports, oil refineries, and other sites along coastal areas of the countries may be contaminating the environment, especially if damaged by the tsunami.

Next week, the U.N. is holding a meeting in Mauritius to review development plans for the world's small island nations. These include countries such as Cuba, Jamaica, Papua New Guinea, and Suriname.