Ladies and Gentlemen,
At the outset, I would like to extend warm greetings to the distinguished delegates attending the Inter-governmental Meeting to finalize the text of the draft SAARC Agreement on Rapid Response to Natural Disasters. I would also like to thank the esteemed Government of the Republic of Maldives for hosting this very important meeting and for extending gracious hospitality to the visiting delegations. This particular initiative is, indeed, indicative of the Maldivian Government’s unwavering commitment to address the issue of climate change and also to put in place an effective instrument to cope with the aftermaths of natural disasters.
The imperative to establish a regional response mechanism cannot be overstated as multiple layers of geo-climatic hazards, coupled with a complex range of socio-economic vulnerabilities, make South Asia one of the hotspots of disasters. To put this in perspective, I wish to highlight some points:
• Six out of eight member states of SAARC are located, partly or fully, on the Himalayas and its associated ranges, which are still adjusting to tectonic movements. This had triggered some of the worst earthquakes and the probability of even more disastrous earthquakes poses a grave threat to human lives, livelihoods and infrastructure in the region.
• The Himalayas have the largest deposits of glaciers outside the polar region, which are melting due to climate change. The immediate consequence has been the increasing incidence of flash floods, glacial lake outburst floods and riverine floods. The long term impact of this phenomenon presents a serious threat to the perennial river systems of the Indus, Ganga and Brahamputra that sustained life and civilizations in South Asia for millennia.
• South Asia’s long coastline faces cyclonic storms, storm surge and inundation regularly.
• Rising sea levels now threaten the survival of many low lying coastal and deltaic regions, including the very country that is hosting this meeting.
• South Asia supports one-fourth of humanity with less than 5% of global income. This means that poverty and deprivation that we face in South Asia puts us in a situation of acute vulnerability.
• South Asia has the largest concentration of mega cities which are growing rapidly.
• The hazards, vulnerabilities and risks of disasters in South Asia have been further compounded in the recent years by climate change.
Indeed, according to the global database on disasters, over the past forty years, South Asia faced as many as 1333 disasters that killed 980 thousand people, affected 2.4 billion lives and damaged assets worth US$ 105 billion. These totals are, by far, the highest among the recorded disasters in various geographic regions of the world.
Natural disasters very often transcend national boundaries and the risks are greater when countries are interlocked by a common geography and geology as countries in South Asia indeed are. Every major earthquake in the Himalayas would affect more than one country; every cyclone in the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea has the potential to affect two countries at a time; every major flood has its origin and consequence beyond a single country.
The widespread devastation and considerable loss of lives caused by the tsunami in 2004 and the earthquake in 2005 in the region provided an immediate sense of urgency to strengthen and redouble regional endeavours under SAARC. Indeed, the recent earthquake and tsunami in Japan serves as a grim reminder of the extensive loss of life and devastation that such disasters can inflict even on a country that is known to be one of the best prepared in the world. And this serves to reinforce the imperative to have in a place a regional response mechanism as we can never be fully prepared.
Our Leaders have always been unequivocal in their resolve and commitment to strengthen regional cooperation in the area of disaster management. During the Fifteenth SAARC Summit, they expressed concern at the human loss suffered through natural disasters in the region and stressed the need for the timely provision of relief in humanitarian emergencies. In this regard, they directed that a Natural Disaster Rapid Response Mechanism be created to adopt a coordinated and planned approach to meet such emergencies under the aegis of the SAARC Disaster Management Centre (SDMC).
Pursuant to this directive, SDMC organized two Expert Group Meetings in New Delhi on 5-6 February 2009 and 3 July 2009 to discuss and recommend the modalities for setting up a Natural Disaster Rapid Response Mechanism (NDRRM). Subsequently, a draft Agreement to institutionalize the regional response mechanism was prepared and circulated to all Member States.
The objective of the draft Agreement before you is to put in place an effective mechanism for rapid response to disasters to achieve substantial reduction in loss of lives and loss of social, economic and environmental assets in times of a disaster. It is based on the principle of respect for the sovereignty, territorial integrity and national unity of all Member States and the mechanism will only be triggered – and this is an important point, distinguished delegates, the mechanism will only be triggered—if a request for assistance is made by a Member State. The draft Agreement sets out the principles and modalities for provision of assistance and relief to an affected Party including exemptions and facilities for provision of assistance, transit of personnel, equipment, facilities and materials.
Given the regional dimension of disasters, the setting up of a regional response mechanism is important and necessary. It will serve to augment national endeavours in times of disasters and will ensure that no Member State is overwhelmed by a natural calamity. The finalization of the draft Agreement will also demonstrate the spirit of solidarity and camaraderie that has always been the raison d’ etre of our Association.
I am confident that the collective wisdom and commitment that you all bring to this meeting will facilitate the successful conclusion of this important instrument for signature at the Seventeenth SAARC Summit in the Maldives in November this year.
Before I conclude, I would like to highlight once again that this draft Agreement is the result of a Summit directive and distinguished delegates, I have no doubt that we all understand fully what that means.
I thank you and wish the deliberations of this meeting every success.