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Switzerland vows to continue Chernobyl aid

A woman in Ukraine waits to be checked for thyroid cancer Keystone

At the end of an international conference to mark the 20th anniversary of Chernobyl, a senior Swiss aid official tells swissinfo the tragedy must not be forgotten.

Toni Frisch, director of the Swiss government’s Humanitarian Aid Unit, says the three million people affected by the nuclear disaster will need support for decades to come.

According to Frisch, the medical, social and economic consequences have still not been overcome 20 years after the accident at Chernobyl’s nuclear reactor.

Frisch, who attended the three-day forum in Minsk organised by Belarus and the United Nations, said Switzerland was committed to providing long-term assistance.

Since 2000 the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation has provided SFr16.5 million ($13 million) for humanitarian projects in affected communities in Belarus, Ukraine and Russia.

swissinfo: Following this conference, how much additional aid will Switzerland be providing?

Toni Frisch: We already have our programme and our strategy for 2006-2008 in place so there is no additional assistance promised. We have a clear programme with about SFr4.5 million a year for the next few years and this is independent of the conference. Our programme is based on the one hand on general needs but mainly on assistance after Chernobyl.

swissinfo: How effective has Swiss aid been so far?

T.F.: I’m convinced that these concrete programmes we have realised with our partners are very effective. The training centre where I am at the moment is focusing on training rescuers – firefighters – for the aftermath of an earthquake. I’m convinced we’re on the right track.

But there are also programmes in the south focusing on mother and health care, and radiation monitoring assistance. These programmes are very concrete, very closely monitored and very effective.

swissinfo: One of the key aims of the conference was to draw up an action plan for the next ten years. What are the main points of that plan?

T.F.: The aim of the conference was not so explicitly a common action plan – it was much more a review after 20 years of cooperation. This cooperation has been generally successful.

I am impressed by how the people and government here in Belarus are dealing with these tremendous problems. I have visited rural areas very near the reactor at Chernobyl and I am impressed by the attitude and the dignity of the people there.

swissinfo: Could more be done?

T.F.: Certainly more could be done, but it is also a question of budgets. The international community should do more but there are limits of course – there are so many catastrophes.

But the most important thing is that we do not forget Chernobyl tomorrow and that we continue to support for the next 20-30 years because these consequences will remain.

However, I am returning optimistic because I have seen that there is a new spirit, many new ideas, and the people have learnt to live with such a catastrophe.

swissinfo-interview: Thomas Stephens

A 2005 report by the International Atomic Energy Agency attributes 56 deaths directly to the meltdown (47 accident workers and nine children with thyroid cancer).
It also estimates that as many as 4,000 people may ultimately die from long-term accident-related illnesses.
Greenpeace, among others, disputes the study’s conclusions.

On April 26, 1986, a reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine melted down, sending a cloud of radioactive fallout over parts of the western Soviet Union, eastern Europe, Scandinavia, Britain and the eastern United States.

Ticino reported the highest levels of radioactivity in Switzerland. Swiss authorities banned fishing on Lake Lugano and recommended that pregnant and breast-feeding mothers and small children avoid fresh milk and vegetables.

The government later had to compensate fishermen and farmers for loss of income.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR