Ladies and Gentlemen,
1. Due to an unavoidable engagement in Bangkok, H.E. Chucheep Hansaward, Minister of Agriculture and Cooperatives has instructed me to convey his message to all of you at the Asia-Pacific Conference on Early Warning, Prevention, Preparedness and Management of Disasters in Food and Agriculture. I then read this message:
2. On behalf of the people of Thailand, I welcome you to the city of Chiangmai. It is a privilege and an honour for our country that FAO has chosen Chiangmai as the venue for this important Conference. And we are happy that so many ministers, high officials and experts have come to participate in this meeting.
3. The subject of this Conference, Early Warning, Prevention, Preparedness and Management of Disasters is indeed of paramount importance to Thailand and I believe the whole world. Increasingly, governments, NGOs and civil societies have become aware of the drag on economic and social development caused by natural and man-made disasters.
4. Thailand may not be as vulnerable as several other countries in this Region - like those located in the "Ring of Fire" and the Typhoon belt. Or those large countries with extreme weather conditions and dense populations living in marginal lands. But we also suffer floods, droughts, landslides, forest and plantation fires, deforestation, water erosion, and plant, animal and fish disease outbreaks among others. Every year unfortunate communities especially the rural people in some parts of the country experience disaster-induced losses of life and property. We are well aware of the suffering of the disaster-prone peoples in Asia and the Pacific and the rest of the World. Thailand supports any and all actions to prevent, mitigate and speed recovery from disasters that befall them.
5. The Conference I have been informed, is intended to mobilize commitment to step-up the work to protect farming systems, natural resources and livelihoods. Such an initiative, arising from the Asia-Pacific Region, is timely and strategic. This is because Asia and the Pacific is the most disaster-prone region in the World. Nearly half the reported disasters in the decade of the nineties occurred here. Eighty per cent of the 150 million people world-wide killed, injured, rendered homeless and otherwise affected in the past 25 years were Asians and Pacific Islanders. This contrasts with three per cent Africans, five per cent Europeans and 13 per cent North and South Americans.
6. Frequency of disasters is high and impacts intense because of climatic, geographic and natural resource diversity, high population density and poverty. Increasingly, environmental degradation, climate change and settlement of marginal lands are making people vulnerable to natural hazards. The Region is subject to almost every conceivable natural hazard. And worst, it is increasingly susceptible to man-made disasters such as war, civil strife, economic crisis and plunder of natural resources.
7. The devastation is disproportionately high in the agricultural sector. Apart from death and injury, damage and loss of standing crops, livestock, food stocks, tools, equipment, buildings, irrigation and drainage systems, transportation networks and other capital occur. There is underemployment and unemployment leading to destitution and undernutrition. Emigration to cities follow. The ill-effects are transmitted from farm to the rural communities and eventually to cities as many vulnerable economies are agriculture-based. For many low-income food-deficit countries, years of painstaking economic development can be erased by a series of natural disasters. Some of their vulnerable peoples never recover completely. There are many examples of such disaster-impoverished communities and countries in this Region. The communities in Central Asia suffering their third consecutive year of drought this year; frequent flood victims in the river deltas of South Asia; and Pacific Islanders inhabiting cyclone-susceptible areas are cases in point. The disasters in fact are getting worst.
8. What can we do to turn the tide? At this critical juncture, I believe we can start by building peoples awareness of disasters - their causes, impact and prevention. Only with heightened awareness on the part of governments, NGOs and the general public can the participatory approach be adopted to actively combat food and agricultural disasters.
9. Next we can re-align disaster programmes from response to prevention and preparedness. It means in effect, to shift from the current focus on relief and mitigation activities to all-round early warning, prevention, preparedness, relief, rehabilitation and sustainable recovery activities. In other words, we must integrate disaster prevention with agricultural development. Success will require changes in attitudes, funding sources and methods of resource allocation. The belief that agricultural disasters can be prevented; a culture of self-reliance; and the practice of participatory governance will be essential.
10. To make a difference, it is also essential to mobilize sufficient resources to implement action plans effectively. In some low-income developing economies, governments find it difficult even to meet recurrent budgetary expenditures. Others can only put resources together for marginal development activity. In such unfavourable circumstances, finding investment funds for disaster prevention and preparedness will be hard. There are many other priorities. It is nevertheless important that we recognize this difficulty and seek ways and means to overcome it. Better agricultural development planning, higher private sector investment, more farmers' inputs and increased NGO contributions are some avenues that are being followed.
11. These fundamental issues inevitably come up in any discussion on disasters. I have no doubt that they will emerge in this Conference. Thailand, and the rest of the World await your findings and recommendations. We are confident that you will launch this initiative on food and agricultural disasters successfully and forge guidelines that will direct our work at the country, regional and international levels.
12. Before I complete this opening statement, I wish to acknowledge the presence of three ministers. They are: H.E. Mr. It Nody, Cambodia; H.E. D.M. Jayaratne, Sri Lanka; and H.E. Mr. Sompal, India. Their august presence gives this Conference a very high profile indeed. It is testimony to the importance of this gathering. I feel extremetly regretful for not being able to meet all of you at this meeting personally.
13. I would like to thank FAO for organizing this Conference. FAO's Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific has once again shown its sensitivity and responsiveness to the needs of this Region. The focus on the Food and Agricultural disasters is opportune and sound.
14. Last but not least, I would also like to point out to you that rice is the major staple food crop for the majority of the people in Asia. About 90 per cent of the global rice output is produced and consumed in the region. Given the importance of the continuous availability of rice for the large number of population in East Asia and the fluctuation of the supply of rice there is a need to review the current rice production, trading and stock holding status in this region. Therefore Thailand will take a lead role in studying these issues in the near future.
15. Finally, on behalf of the people of Thailand, I wish all representatives and experts fruitful discussions. As visitors from afar, you should also enjoy yourself outside this Conference hall. I, on behalf of the residents of Chiangmai, offer our help in any we can.
Thank you. I declare the Conference open.