Tsunami Disaster Dominates Small Island States Gathering

PORT LOUIS, Mauritius, January 11, 2005 (ENS) - One minute of silence in memory of the more than 150,000 lives lost in the Indian Ocean tsunami opened the inaugural session of an international conference on sustainablity for small island developing states in Mauritius on Monday.


Prime Minister of the Republic of Mauritius Paul Berenger (Photo courtesy ENB)
"Our heart goes out to all those who have suffered and continue to suffer and we wish to reiterate here our heartfelt sympathy and solidarity with all the countries and peoples hit by the tsunami," said Prime Minister of the Republic of Mauritius Paul Berenger, in his opening speech.

More than 2,000 delegates from the world’s 51 small island developing states, and their traditional partners from other countries, including some 25 heads of state and government, are participating in the meeting.

Formally known as the International Meeting to Review the Implementation of the Programme of Action for the Sustainable Development of Small Island Developing States, the gathering was organized by the United Nations in collaboration with its various agencies including UNESCO.

Over the next four days they will review the implementation of the program of action for small island developing states (SIDS) agreed upon 10 years ago at a global conference in Barbados.

"The task for the International Meeting is a critical one for SIDS," said Anwarul Chowdhury, secretary-general of the meeting and United Nations under-secretary-general and high representative.


Anwarul Chowdhury, secretary-general of the meeting and United Nations under-secretary-general and high representative (Photo courtesy )
"Despite the efforts made by small island developing states, the expectations for international support and cooperation for the implementation of the Barbados Programme have not materialized," Chowdhury acknowledged.

Emerging issues such as HIV/AIDS, trade and security have further compounded the problems facing these nations made vulnerable by their size and isolation, Chowdhury said. In order to make "meaningful headway," he said, "the priorities that are set here in Mauritius must not only be realistic and achievable, but should command the full and genuine support of the international community.’

A panel discussion convened in the afternoon to address environmental vulnerabilities in small island countries.

Another important event on the agenda will be a session on reducing vulnerability and building resilience of SIDS, to be held this afternoon. It has been convened by the World Meteorological Organization and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, in the aftermath of the Indian Ocean tsunami.

Among the speakers for this session are Laura Kong, Director of the International Tsunami Information Centre in Honolulu, which is key part of the tsunami early warning system for the Pacific initiated by UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC), and Bill Erb, the head of the IOC’s office in Australia.

At the conference, UNESCO Director-General, Koichiro Matsuura, will announce UNESCO’s global strategy for the establishment of a Tsunami Early Warning System, including the one for the Indian Ocean

“One of the many lessons we must learn from the Indian Ocean catastrophe is that tsunami can strike wherever there is a coastline”, said Matsuura in Paris on the eve of his departure for Mauritius. “Minimizing their impact requires cooperation and collaboration between a range of partners that go beyond the borders of any one state. Any early warning system, to be truly effective, must therefore be global in scope.”


Sunrise on the island nation of Mauritius (Photo courtesy Cilaos)
Matsuura welcomed the proposal from the meeting of leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Jakarta last week envisioning the establishment of a tsunami warning system in the region, and the offers made by several countries to support such a project. But, he pointed out that there are many other regions at risk, including the Mediterranean, the Caribbean and the South West Pacific.

UNESCO stands ready, he said, to lend the experience and expertise gained in the Pacific over the past 40 years to the provision of a global warning system, and to ensure coordination amongst international partners to avoid duplication.

UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission initiated the tsunami warning system for the Pacific in 1968, and has been arguing the need for an alert system for the Indian Ocean for several years. But member states did not consider the issue urgent, Matsuura said, given the rarity of tsunami in the region. The last one was recorded over a century ago, and the lack of resources in many countries, plus a long list of other priorities, and the fact that 85 percent of the world’s tsunami occur in the Pacific, combined to reduce the motivation to establish such as system.

Another key issue on the agenda in Port Louis is the role of culture in the sustainable development of small island developing states. UNESCO has organized a panel discussion on the topic to be held on the afternoon of January 11. The session will be moderated by Dame Pearlette Louisy, Governor-General of Saint Lucia and higher-education specialist.

To ensure that young people become more involved in the development and decisionmaking processes of their island states, UNESCO has supported the participation of some 100 young men and women from small island states, who are taking part in a forum on Youth Visioning for Island Living at the conference, exchanging experiences, discussing the mobilization of young people in island states and lobbying their political representatives to give them a greater voice.