REMARKS IN THE PERMANENT COUNCIL OF THE OAS ON THE RESOLUTION ON NATURAL DISASTERS REDUCTION, 22 NOVEMBER 2000
Posted August 23rd. 2001
I have been looking through the resolution that relates to the topic under discussion, and I do agree, as the resolution states, that great emphasis must be placed on the financial aspects of things as they are. But, Mr. Chairman, in discussing this topic related to natural disasters, we always have to revert to the root causes.
I agree with my distinguished colleague from Ecuador that we have not yet developed the technology, or the knowledge for that matter, to prevent natural disasters or even to reduce them, but we have the capacity to do some sort of mitigation work to reduce the effects of these disasters on our people.
The resolution at hand, Mr. Chairman, specifies the problems of hurricanes. But as we know, natural disasters in this hemisphere, and in the world for that matter, encompass other factors, other forms of disasters caused by other problems. We have volcanoes, earthquakes, the problems of rising sea levels, and, of course, the ever-present hurricanes. Then there are floods and droughts caused by the ever-changing patterns in the weather systems.
Some of the countries in our hemisphere have suffered tremendously over the years. We do not need to seek out examples. But, Mr. Chairman, I preface my remarks by pointing to the fact that we have to examine the root causes of all of these problems. Of course, there is no need to go into the study of geomorphology to learn the causes of volcanoes and earthquakes, but most of the disasters in our hemisphere are related to the ever-changing weather phenomena.
Ambassador Hurst [of Antigua and Barbuda], who spoke earlier, is on record in this organization for speaking very profoundly on global warming. Over the years, he has always highlighted the problems of the melting ice sheets on the continent of Antarctica. There were times when he took the floor, both in this Permanent Council and even at the General Assembly, to point us towards that problem.
Mr. Chairman, only a few days ago, a report was published widely in a number of scientific journals and even in the popular media to show that the ice sheets around the North Pole are melting rapidly. Projections showed on maps indicate that in about fifty years, that ice sheet would diminish substantially. This diminishing of these ice sheets means that the water levels in our oceans are going to rise.
Many of the countries in this hemisphere have low coastal belts. The islands of the Caribbean around the northern coast of South America, including my own country, the Central American area, and even parts of the United States, will eventually be affected tremendously by this rising sea level.
My country has a coastal belt below sea level, as does Surinanie, and hundreds of miles of coastline have to be protected by sea walls, which are very costly to maintain. The sea walls are being battered tremendously by the rising sea level and the rising tides. In many cases, we have had severe breaches of these sea walls, and millions of dollars, in many cases not budgeted for in our national budgets, have to be expended in doing repair work.
Of course, all of this affects the general economic condition of our country. The whole country suffers in the long run when we have to divert funds from national development and the development of agriculture and industry in order to maintain the sea walls to protect against natural disasters.
Mr. Chairman, I mentioned earlier the problem of volcanoes. We do not seem to place much emphasis on volcanoes because they do not occur all the time. But one is erupting right now in the northern Caribbean, on the island of Montserrat. It has displaced a great proportion of the population of that island country and has put tremendous pressure on the neighboring sister country of Antigua and Barbuda. People who have been displaced have moved and they have lost their livelihood. In the southern Caribbean, just off Grenada, there is an underwater volcano. I think it is called "Kick- em-Jenny" or something like that, and it is going to give a severe kick when eventually it erupts. Scientists and geologists tell us that this is going to happen. We do not know how long down the road it will happen, but when does, a great catastrophe can occur with the tidal wave that will wash across the Caribbean and the northern coast of South America.
So these disasters are there. Our colleague from Ecuador said that we cannot prevent them nor reduce them, so we have to plan ahead and take steps to mitigate them so that when they occur, our populations will not be in their path.
We have to think seriously about environmental and engineering management. I think the representative of the 1DB did mention something about it. If we do not have proper environmental and engineering management, our current population concentrated in particular areas will continue to damage the environment. An example is the removal of trees and so on from sloped lands. We also will not have proper building techniques, and this is where the engineering comes into play. If and when a natural disaster takes place C let=s say a hurricane or heavy rainfall C severe problems will occur in those areas if there is no environmental engineering.
Around this time last year, our sister state of Venezuela felt the effects of heavy rainfall. Many people did not know that rain could fall so heavily and in such quantities, but it happened, and areas of sloped lands and mountain sides just washed away. In washing away, they washed away the lives of hundreds and thousands of people.
We have to look ahead and begin to plan. We can build new settlements in areas that we believe would be far from the areas that would be affected by floods and hurricanes. Of course, all of these things come about with great cost, so it is important that this resolution should address the question of financing. All of our countries will also have to rethink our priorities in dealing with natural disasters.
But, Mr. Chairman, we also have to relate this issue to the problems of poverty in our hemisphere. When countries are poor and cannot generate the resources, and when they have high volumes of debt, these factors affect their economic development and their planning to mitigate against these disasters.
So, Mr. Chairman, I want to take this opportunity to support this resolution. At the same time, as representatives of our countries at this high forum, we should think seriously about influencing our policy makers to begin, if they have not yet done so, to think seriously about putting into place proper engineering and environmental planning to mitigate against future natural disasters.