Tsunami Disaster in Focus as Island Meeting Opens
PORT LOUIS The Indian Ocean tsunami has pushed disaster early warning to the top of the agenda at a meeting of the world's small islands, potentially crowding out concerns about climate change and trade, some delegates say.
The U.N. conference of 37 island countries, to be attended by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and donor nation diplomats, opened on Monday to discuss island challenges bred by geographical isolation, limited resources and exposure to the violent whims of nature.
But the Dec. 26 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami, which killed 150,000, has given the meeting in Mauritius a new urgency and focus on island vulnerability to natural disaster.
Though the last has always been a major island issue, the meeting's secretary-general, U.N. Undersecretary General and High Representative Anwarul Chowdhury, said now was the time to give the Indian Ocean and other regions a key protection.
"(Annan's) recent call for a global early warning system needs serious attention at this conference," Chowdhury told the delegates in his opening speech.
Its absence was believed to have contributed to thousands of preventable deaths across the coastlines of the Indian Ocean.
Chowdhury chided donor nations for giving islands less and less help to achieve goals set at a 1994 Barbados conference, which dealt with climate change, energy needs, tourism and the management of fresh water, waste and biodiversity.
"Despite the efforts made by the small island developing states, the expectations for international support and cooperation for the implementation of the Barbados programme have not materialised," he said.
Annan arrived in Mauritius on Monday evening, after touring Indonesia, Sri Lanka and other areas struck by the tsunami. U.N. officials said he was expected to work behind the scenes on small island issues before addressing the high-level session of the meeting on Thursday.
Trade, Climate Key
Mauritius Prime Minister Paul Berenger, president of the meeting, which is formally a 10-year review of progress made on the Barbados environmental and development goals, pressed donor nations to help with two areas of increasing concern to islands.
"I urge for continued flexibility and understanding on behalf of all delegations to try to reach agreement on outstanding issues, in particular climate change and trade," Berenger told delegates.
The end of global trade quotas has opened fragile and traditionally undiversified island economies to competition from powerhouses like India and China, and some islands' existence is threatened by rising sea levels.
Delegates said progress on trade issues was made at informal talks over the weekend, but none had been made in the contentious area of climate change.
"I don't see any major progress in the text of the final document as the positions of some developed countries are anchored too strong to make a shift," Mohamed Latheef, Maldives' ambassador to the United Nations, told Reuters.
The international community has traditionally resisted island calls for continued trade preferences and some rich nations have fought any suggestion their fossil-fuel emissions contribute to global warming and rising seas.