World's Smallest Nations Seek Voice at Disaster Conference



While global attention is focused on the death toll from last month's earthquake and tsunami that swept across the Indian Ocean, some of the world's smallest states hope the disaster will cast light on the unique challenges they face.

Despite the vast size of the December 26 earthquake and tsunami, the nations that were devastated will survive. But the prognosis would not be as hopeful for some of the world's smallest states if they are hit by such a disaster.

For the low-lying nation of Kiribati, composed of three Pacific island groups covering 811 square kilometers, the tsunami was a reminder its vulnerability. Teboranga Tiot, of the Office of the President, is the country's sole representative at the World Conference on Disaster Reduction. She is struggling to make her country's voice heard among the more powerful nations at the conference this week in Kobe, Japan.

"One day Kiribati will be submerging with a population of nine thousand," she said. "I hope we are significant, as well, in terms of recognition of our problem."

Kiribati is downright spacious compared to its neighbor to the southwest, Tuvalu, whose islands cover a mere 21 square kilometers. The deputy secretary to the country's prime minister, Simeti Lopati, says he thinks the tsunami will bring awareness to the plight of micro-nations, such as his.

"Our islands they are not more than three meters high above sea water. And even the land area is so, so tiny," he said. "Hurricanes and tsunami can destroy the whole nation."

There are several dozen tiny island nations and territories with populations often as low as 10,000 people. Many of them are little more than clusters of sandy strips of land that rise only a few meters above the sea. Their governments have worried for years that global warming could raise sea levels, completely swamping the islands, and their cultures.

While these states individually have scant political clout they do have a high-level official at the United Nations representing their interests collectively.

Anwarul Chowdhury is the U.N. official representing the world's poorest nations. He says natural disasters have a disproportionately high economic, social and environmental effect on small island states. He notes small islands can suffer significant damage to their coral reefs during earthquakes, tsunamis or other natural disasters.

"Coral reef attracts tourists, coral reef helps handicrafts, coral reef preserve fisheries and ocean life," added Mr. Chowdhury. "These are very important and these are a sort of economic support to many of the small islands."

Island nations in the Pacific and elsewhere are lobbying larger countries to include in the conference's 10-year action plan programs to help them overcome their unique vulnerabilities.

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