NAIROBI, Kenya -- Urgent investment is needed in North Korea to deal with severe environmental problems that have depleted the country's forests, contaminated water supplies, and polluted the air, the head of the UN Environment Program said yesterday.
North Korea ''has very severe environmental challenges, very severe," said Klaus Toepfer, the executive director of the Nairobi-based UN Environment Program.
Toepfer spoke after signing an agreement with North Korean officials that would increase cooperation with the UN agency, which is based in Nairobi.
North Korean officials declined to answer any questions at the signing ceremony. Toepfer said they told him they did not want to participate in a news conference that followed the signing.
The agency also released the first-ever UN report on the state of the environment in North Korea yesterday, which revealed how the country's environmental, economic, and political problems have all compounded one another.
''There is a reliance on coal for power generation and domestic heating, and this has created serious urban air pollution problems," Toepfer said.
North Korean officials have said the country is developing nuclear power to meet its electricity needs but has also used the program to develop nuclear weapons, prompting international condemnation and isolation. The UN report recommended investing in renewable energy and cleaner coal-burning technology.
Problems with deforestation and water pollution have also contributed to shortfalls in food production, the UN report said.
The North has depended on outside help to feed its people since 1995. It is still struggling to become self-sufficient because of continuing poor crop yields due to natural disasters, the overuse of chemicals, and shortages of fertilizer, farm machinery, and oil, the UN agency said.
The UN 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.
''There is a huge decrease in crop [production] linked with the devastation of land," Toepfer said. ''They have much more agriculture-related problems in a county with a high dependence on agriculture."
To help remedy the food shortage, the UN Environment Program said farmers should expand use of restorative practices, including tree planting and use of organic fertilizers. Investing in waste-water treatment plants will also help alleviate the country's pollution problems, Toepfer said.
The country's forests have fallen victim to its fast-growing population, which is estimated at more than 24 million. Energy needs, along with natural disasters and efforts to convert forests to farmland have also depleted the forests, the report said.
''North Korea is a water-rich country, but there is a challenge in maintaining the water supply and quality," Toepfer said. The report found that a dozen factories discharge some 39,200 cubic yards of waste each day into the Taedong River running through the capital Pyongyang.