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Tsunami Damage Gives Clues to Climate Peril

MAURITIUS: January 14, 2005

PORT LOUIS - Damage done by Asia's tsunami gives a clearer idea of the danger climate change poses to small islands, which fear rising seas will submerge them as the world warms, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said on Thursday.

Annan was speaking at a UN conference in Mauritius on the perils facing small islands, which has added lessons from the Dec. 26 tidal wave to an agenda that includes long-standing worries about rising seas and trade.

"This meeting has taken on even greater relevance in the wake of the tsunami," Annan told the gathering of 37 island countries.

"It is no longer so hard to imagine what might happen from the rising sea levels that the world's top scientists are telling us will accompany global warming.

"We must also be ready to take decisive measures to address climate change ... Who can claim that we are doing enough?"

Many small islands fear extinction because of a rise in sea levels that a UN panel of scientists has blamed on global warming, driven by a build-up of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere from the burning of fossil fuels.

Some scientists dismiss the UN findings as based on erroneous climate models.

St. Lucia's environment minister, Theophilus Ferguson John, said it would be foolish to ignore the growing evidence.

"For us to gainsay the reality of climate change is to bury one's head in the sands of denial, an approach that could lead us to the fate of a famous bird which once inhabited this beautiful island," John said, referring to the flightless Dodo, hunted to extinction in the late 17th century.


ISLANDS IN JEOPARDY

Annan, who arrived on the Indian Ocean island from a tour of tsunami-stricken Asian regions, renewed a call for the creation of a global early warning system to alert vulnerable communities to tsunamis, storm surges and cyclones.

"I have seen some of the terrible destruction -- vast, lifeless swathes where once there were vibrant communities. I have met with displaced families, and listened to stories of unimaginable sadness," he said.

The damage to low-lying islands like the Maldives and the Seychelles included the inundation of fresh water sources with salt water, which destroyed crops and strained already scarce supplies, said Al Binger, a climate change expert at the University of the West Indies in Jamaica.

"But that is only the physical manifestation of sea level rise," Binger told Reuters. Higher temperatures may kill coral reefs, breed fiercer storms and disrupt weather relied on by farmers, he said.

Annan warned that economic marginalisation and environmental damage could spell disaster for islands. "For some, their very existence is in jeopardy."

Tuvalu in the south Pacific, already losing some of its islands to the rising sea, said all nations must unite in reducing pollution.

"Tuvalu is already suffering from the impact of climate change and sea level rise, and we are uncertain of the future of out atoll nation," said Prime Minister Maatia Toafa.

Annan applauded an agreement struck last week in Jakarta to build a tsunami warning system for the Indian Ocean and Southeast Asia. But a global system also covering other disasters was essential, he said.

The UN said on Wednesday a $30 million Indian Ocean tsunami alert system would be launched in June 2006, and a system covering the rest of the world would follow a year later costing about $130 million.


Story by C. Bryson Hull


REUTERS NEWS SERVICE



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