Distinguished Participants and Friends,
1. On behalf of FAO, I welcome you to this Asia-Pacific Conference on Early Warning, Prevention, Preparedness and Management of Disasters in Food and Agriculture. It is encouraging indeed to see so many countries and organizations represented at such high levels. Here, I would like to acknowledge the presence of the Minister of Agriculture, Sri Lanka, H.E. Mr. Jayaratne; Member of Planning Commission, India, H.E. Mr. Sompal; and Under-Secretary of State, Cambodia, H.E. Mr. It Nody. Your presence as well as the participation of senior most officials in the field of disaster mitigation, shows that we were right to heed the calls to action at the 25th FAO Regional Conference for Asia and the Pacific. Some of you may recall that no less than twelve Regional Conference delegations urged FAO to renew and reinforce efforts to help countries overcome disasters in Yokohama last August.
2. We have responded quickly. This is partly because the incidence and impact of disasters have increased significantly in recent years. Recurrent droughts, storms, floods, mudslides, tsunamis, earthquakes, forest fires, volcanic eruptions, and other natural disasters have caused more devastation in this Region in the last decade than any other in history. To convey a measure of the scale of the problem, let me quote some figures. Each year 150 to 263 disasters were reported in the nineties. About 130 million people were killed, injured, rendered homeless or otherwise seriously affected by natural disasters in the last two and a half decades in Asia. Right now, Large parts of Iran, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and several Central Asian countries are going into their second or third consecutive years of drought. The DPR Korea and Mongolia are suffering the after-effects of an extremely harsh winter following earlier disastrous years of alternating floods and droughts. And some parts of South East Asia may experience cereal production shortfalls owing to third to fourth quarter storms and widespread flooding last year. In recent years, armed conflict, civil unrest and economic crises have also emerged as major causes of deprivation, hunger and dislocation of people.
3. FAO has responded by convening this Conference also because we realized that there is a need to focus attention on the damage done to food and agriculture. The ravages in the sector can be sudden or gradual. But the harm done to the livelihoods of farming communities is extensive. Droughts for example, come stealthily, cause standing crop and pasture losses and leave long-lasting after-effects in depleted reservoirs, lowered water tables and in some places salt intrusion of soils. Floods wash away people, houses and equipment as well as standing crops, stocks and livestock; wiping off years of asset building by farmers. Similarly storms, tsunamis, mudslides, fires, earthquakes and volcano eruptions kill people, reduce agricultural assets and cause unemployment and underemployment in the agricultural sector for years to come. The losses thus caused to biodiversity are at times not only colossal but also permanent.
4. Yet, governments of many vulnerable countries have not done enough to contain agricultural disasters and speedy recovery from them. Perhaps because immediate needs for drinking water, food, clothing and shelter as well as basic health services have taken up all available resources. Certainly because the prevailing mindset had been that agricultural disasters must be accepted as part of the cycle of good and bad harvests. And there is very little one can do about the weather and other factors and forces that cause disasters.
5. Such resignation is unacceptable. There is much that we can do in the early warning, prevention, preparedness and management of agricultural disasters to limit the damage to rural livelihoods. Present day technology and tools can prevent weather aberrations from turning into agricultural disasters. New planting materials and best practices can make farming systems resilient in natural calamities. Furthermore reinforced institutions, programmes, and legal provisions and instruments can help people cope and live with disasters and recover from them quickly.
6. Some examples will make these contentions clearer. Early warning systems based on agro-meteorological models, satellite imagery, statistical analysis and other observations like the ENSO are being used to provide hazard alerts up to a year ahead. FAO's Global Information and Early Warning System (GIEWS) has taken the lead in this field. Its GIEWS Workstation has customized tools to combine various data from multiple sources to identify emerging disaster areas down to sub-national level.
7. Revolutionary farming systems built on innovations in watershed management, plant varieties and cropping cycles, contingency crop planning and soil and nutrient management have been tested and applied in disaster-prone areas. FAO has assisted many Asia-Pacific countries to adopt such disaster-resilient farming systems. Noteworthy are our efforts within the framework of the Special Programme on Food Security in 15 countries of the Region. In this Programme, we undertake phased introduction of natural resource management, efficient water-use, sustainable cropping systems, and diversification of income sources. Several countries have moved on to the expansion phase of the programme. Several more have asked to join.
8. Comprehensive risk management in agricultural communities is being developed. It involves identification and assessment of different risks leading to preparatory measures for risk reduction. FAO's pioneering work among pastoral communities in Central Asia is receiving growing attention and interest.
9. Disaster management is now viewed as a continuum of early warning, prevention, preparedness, mitigation, relief, rehabilitation, reconstruction and sustainable recovery activities. This new approach combines disaster management with overall development activities. FAO has a road map for integrating these eight phases of the disaster cycle with agricultural development activities. Increasingly disaster-prone countries as well as concerned organizations are learning and adopting this approach.
10. There has been increasing recognition and conviction that we must know who and where the vulnerable people are and why before we can make any headway in improving food security. Identifying disaster-prone peoples is a major part of this essential task. Establishing national, regional and global Food Insecurity and Vulnerability Information Mapping Systems (FIVIMS) is currently being attempted as a follow-up to the World Food Summit. FAO is the prime mover of this multi-country and multi-agency venture. Our work in Asia will be presented at this Conference.
11. Mr. Chairman, these and other technological and management advances mean that we do not have to accept the inevitability of food and agricultural disasters. We can change traditional passive tolerance of natural disasters to more action-oriented resistance among the vulnerable farming communities. To succeed in mobilizing grassroots support for disaster reduction, we in FAO feel that planning, perseverance and innovation are critical.
12. Planning based on a proper perspective of agricultural disasters is critical because there are short, medium and long-term measures to be taken. So far the majority of disaster-prone developing countries have concentrated on immediate relief measures and some medium-term agricultural rehabilitation actions. These usually include the three urgent and basic actions of distributing food and water, supplying seed and other agricultural inputs and repairing canals, dykes, roads and other physical infrastructure. But they are not enough. More long-term programmes are needed. They include programmes for awareness building, raising early warning capabilities, strengthening agro-meteorology work, research and development of farming systems, improvement of natural resource management and provision of agriculture disaster support services. These can come about only with a long-term perspective plan. Such a long-term perspective plan must make disaster prevention and preparedness part and parcel of agricultural sector development.
13. Persistence and perseverance are needed on the part of disaster workers and local leaders because resources are always limited. Resources are especially scarce for investment in agricultural disaster prevention and preparedness - the results of which are not immediately visible and benefit only the poor and silent deprived rural communities. Concerned workers must adopt a strategy for continuous resource mobilization through partnership building and participatory action. The work of FAO's Special Relief Operations Service at the global level is a good example. A focal point with strong capacity for resource mobilization at the national level is important in some disaster-prone countries.
14. Innovation among agricultural workers and farmers is the third important ingredient for success in combating agricultural disasters. Historically, early warning of floods and droughts seldom led to mitigation of the impending disasters. Thus over six months advance alerts of the last El Nino induced flooding did not lead to fruitful mitigating measures in several South-East Asian countries. Also, early knowledge of the coming drought in several Near-east countries last year, produced little in the way of improved water management, cropping systems and cultural practices among vulnerable communities. This poor response could be due to anyone or combination of reasons. The non-performance reasons include limited dissemination of the alert, inaction of officials and agricultural extension workers, technology constraints, scarcity of resources and inertia of the farmers. We in FAO believe that the basic technology as well as the communications infrastructure is available. It requires innovation and participatory action to transfer available technology to field practice. Invention and innovation are traits that must be nurtured among agricultural workers and farmers.
15. FAO has convened this Conference precisely to see how together, we can cultivate planning, perseverance and innovation in protecting farming systems, natural resources and livelihoods in disaster-prone areas. With the help of concerned institutions like the Asian Disaster Preparedness Centre, the Central Research institute for Dryland Agriculture of India and the Bangladesh Agricultural Research Council, we will be presenting 15 technical papers. These will outline the latest developments in the early warning, prevention preparedness and management of agricultural disasters particularly those caused by droughts, floods, storms, fires and livestock diseases.
16. In the next four days you are expected to come up with recommendations to guide FAO's work in this major Priority Area for Inter-disciplinary Action of the Organization. We also look to this Conference to give direction to countries in their national programmes for early warning, prevention, preparedness and management of food and agricultural disasters. Specifically, we seek your advice on:
17. Mr. Chairman, Distinguished Participants, Ladies and Gentlemen, in conclusion, let me stress that this is an important Conference for FAO and its member countries. It will highlight the current neglect and fragmented nature of agricultural preparedness work. And bring to the fore the urgent need for a strategy and action plan on food and agricultural disasters and the resources to implement it. Hopefully, the Conference will generate the interest and commitment of all stakeholders and players.
18. Finally, let me thank the Royal Government of Thailand and the Governor of Chiangmai for allowing FAO to hold this Conference in this beautiful city. I am grateful to the Distinguished Representative of the Minister of Agriculture and Cooperatives of Thailand, Mr. Tongchai Petcharatana, for delivering the Opening Statement of this Conference on behalf of the Minister of Agriculture and Cooperatives. I would also like to thank our member countries and international organizations for sending their representatives to this Conference. As head of this Regional Office, allow me to thank the Asian Disaster Preparedness Centre, individual consultants and FAO's in-house specialists for preparing the technical background papers and for coming all the way to serve as resource persons. In particular, I must admire, Mr. T.C. Ti, Secretary of the Conference, in brilliantly guiding and putting together the technical programme. My appreciation and gratitude go lastly to the Association of Food and Agricultural Marketing Agencies in Asia and the Pacific and its able Executive Director, Mr. M.R. Satyal, for helping us to organize this Conference.
19. I hope you will enjoy this city and its beautiful people as much as the likely to be exciting discussions in the Conference.
Thank you for your attention.