It is a special honour for me, as the representative at the Mauritius International Meeting of the President of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, to be with you today at this workshop side event organised with the World Meteorological Organisation.
Its theme, the reduction of vulnerability through the building and maintenance of community resilience, could hardly be more appropriate today.
All small island states share a special need for the development of effective and efficient mechanisms for disaster preparedness through community resilience. In my role as President of the Barbados Red Cross Society I can speak with experience of the absolute nature of this need.
My delegation also has the benefit of National Society representation from the Red Cross Society of our host country, Mauritius. The Seychelles Red Cross would also have been represented in our delegation, but unfortunately flash floods in that country have made this impossible.
And, here today in this workshop under the leadership of His Excellency the Permanent Representative of the Maldive Islands to the United Nations, we have an opportunity to speak of what the Red Cross Red Crescent actually does, and of the steps we take to build the resilience which is such an essential part of preparedness, response and preparedness for response.
We are also fortunate to have with us on this panel very distinguished experts in various disciplines relevant to weather-related disasters. Their experience brings real complementarity to our group and should make possible an important exchange and learning experience for us all.
Until two weeks ago, the International Federation was preparing for this Meeting with a view to basing the disaster preparedness elements of presentations on the experience of the Caribbean islands with the hurricanes which battered our countries so severely in 2004. The world has changed since then, and this Indian Ocean region may have changed for ever.
Nobody, not even the people of the smallest Caribbean islands, can set their own tragedies above those which have inflicted such heavy losses of lives and livelihoods on so many people in the Indian Ocean region. And I say this from a region which includes the Small Island State of Grenada, where two thirds of the population was left homeless by Hurricane Ivan only last September.
We all learn from each other when disasters strike. In my own country, where the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Response Agency (CDERA) is headquartered, there are already talks under way on the establishment of a tsunami warning system for our islands.
One of the main lessons from the Indian Ocean tragedy is that no coastal state can consider itself immune from such phenomena, and investments must be made in warning systems. This is all the more important as the number of weather-related disasters continues to increase, and the need for warnings as well as preparedness becomes all the more acute.
Warning systems by themselves are, however, of little value unless communities understand how they work and how warnings should be transmitted. The effectiveness of hurricane warnings in the Caribbean region has been a significant contribution to the minimisation of the loss of life, and in some countries - Cuba is a good example - few lives were lost despite the material devastation wreaked by the hurricane season in 2004.
The transmission of warnings is often one of the major roles of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in the late preparedness stage before disasters strike. I will offer an example, from the Bay of Bengal region, of how our volunteers, are trained and equipped to bring meteorological warnings to the most remote communities and help them prepare for nature's onslaught.
Bangladesh is not an island state, but its coastal communities have many of the characteristics being debated in this risk reduction context. The way warnings of climate events are transmitted involves radio transmission from the capital through to district level and then to local communities where our trained volunteers take the necessary messages and directions to the people themselves.
We do this in the closest coordination with specialists from the Meteorology Bureau, and indeed in Bangladesh the Red Crescent volunteers in coastal areas are also responsible for collecting weather data for the Met Bureau.
This is just one example of how intermixed the responsibilities of volunteers can be, but there are many others from around the world which show clearly how the Met Bureau and the Red Cross / Red Crescent depend for the comprehensive accuracy of their work on volunteers and community support.
They, like us, are trusted by the communities in which they live and work. Together, we can forewarn people and help them preserve their lives, even if not their livelihoods.
We look forward to contributing in more detail on this subject, for it is clear that any workable warning system will require the means to take it to the people most likely to be hardest hit - and in island states they are likely to be people in the most remote locations.
It is our hope, following a very beneficial opportunity to speak on similar themes at the recent World Conservation Congress in Bangkok, that it will be possible to forge a still stronger volunteer base in the future, linking Red Cross Red Crescent volunteers to the millions of people who give their time for nature and conservation through organisations linked to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.
Likewise, the IFRC enjoys a close relationship with the world's sports organisations via the International Olympic Committee. Each of these groups has a strong base in the SIDS, and through these linkages we hope to bring great new consolidated strength to the topics of resilience and recovery.
The link with the conservation movement is important to us. I have already mentioned the devastation of Grenada by Hurricane Ivan in 2004, but a particularly relevant case in this context is the loss of life and the damage suffered by Haiti after Tropical Storm Jeanne in 2004.
As is well-known, deforestation and poverty have been identified as the main factors in such a heavy loss of life, and this has contributed to the very heavy burden experienced by the Haitian National Red Cross Society. The Society has managed its response and relief work very well in the most difficult of circumstances, which is a tribute to the effectiveness of its work at the community level.
Once again, it is at the community that the real difference is made, and this is where our work is concentrated.
One of the important elements in the International Federation's appeal for Haiti following the floods was the enhancement of the disaster preparedness capacity of the Society. Successful preparedness work depends, however, on the active support of government, and on patience.
It takes many generations to bring people to the kind of preparedness which has saved so many lives in Bangladesh - in that country the programs have now been in place for 32 years, and the relatively low loss of life after the most serious floods for decades in 2004 speaks volumes for the work of the National Society and its partnership with Government and others.
The Red Cross Red Crescent role in disasters is to build communities which are capable both of withstanding the impact of the disasters to the greatest extent possible, and to help others less fortunate than themselves. This work, usually far from cameras, is much less visible than the work done when disaster strikes.
Almost all disaster footage on television shows our people - our volunteers - in their red cross or red crescent identities rescuing people, bringing them medicines and food, and caring for the most vulnerable.
This visible feature is now seen by many as the public face of the red cross and red crescent during disasters. But we wish to emphasise at this meeting that much of the most important work we do takes place long before the disaster strikes, ensuring preparedness through resilient communities.
Resilience is particularly important for the isolated communities of small island states. It is normal, sadly, that these states do not have the infrastructure or the population base from which the support services available in a continental state can be brought to a disaster site.
In our countries the communities must fend for themselves until help can arrive. That help normally cannot arrive for days, by which time many people may have died.
In small island states we devote special resources to community preparedness for this reason. Without it, our people would not survive. Without the resilience that good preparedness builds, our communities would not be able to rebuild their lives.
This is also an important part of our work in the communities - helping people restore their livelihoods and helping the country as a whole regain the benefit of the productivity of its people.
One other point which deserves special mention today is the extent to which our services need to take account of the fact that many small island states have economies which are heavily dependent on tourism.
This, of course, is why our countries have a "paradise" reputation. But it also means that our Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies must build and maintain their capacity as the world's best known tracing service to help locate persons missing after disasters strike.
This need was depicted graphically in the Caribbean in the 2004 hurricane season, and it has proved just as important in the Indian Ocean tsunami disaster. It is a facility valuable both for our own citizens and for the thousands of tourists we welcome to our countries.
Time does not allow a longer description of what we have faced, but the breadth of the disaster situation now making media headlines worldwide is an issue addressed by the National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies of Small Island Developing States a little more than a year ago.
In this South West Indian Ocean Region the formation of the PIROI (Platform for Disaster Response in the Indian Ocean), consisting of the countries of Mauritius, Madagascar, Seychelles, the Comoros, Mozambique (since 2004) as well as Réunion and Mayotte, is another example of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies with similar vulnerabilities working together for a common goal.
We convened during the International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent in December 2003, together with representatives of many of our governments and notable international organisations including representatives of the International Strategy for Disaster Reduction.
One of our principal conclusions, which we brought to preparatory meetings for this Mauritius International Meeting, was that governments must recognise the important role that their National Societies play in addressing the particular vulnerabilities of SIDS in disaster situations.
Accordingly, we the National Societies of SIDS have stressed the importance of governments ensuring that their National Societies are incorporated into their national disaster management group, to ensure that disaster planning fully includes the part which communities must play if worst case scenarios are to be averted.
We also called on governments to build their community risk reduction strategies in cooperation with their National Society. Only this way can they be secure in the knowledge that plans developed in distant capital cities will work well in outlying and remote areas.
The thrust of our work with governments mixes preparedness with response. Many people speak of the need to work from relief to development. We agree with the basic motivation which leads them to say this, but we extend it. Development also needs to be based around response - one of the savage characteristics of nature is that disasters recur. We know that well in the Caribbean.
So preparedness needs to be built from the work done as part of response, just as response needs to relate to the need for preparedness for the unknown future.
The International Federation, for its part, devotes considerable resources to helping National Societies build their capacity and be capable of playing this essential role as key actors in preparedness, response, recovery and rehabilitation alongside their governments and their civil society partners.
The International Federation recognises that the unique role of National Societies, as auxiliaries to the public authorities of their countries in the humanitarian field, must be supported at all times and is an essential component of disaster preparedness, risk reduction and community rebuilding strategies.
The International Federation also recognises that the challenge of providing an effective auxiliary partner for governments in small island developing states is substantial. There are many problems, most of which are being articulated at this Meeting.
But the challenge of scale and infrastructure is daunting for all of us, and that is why it is so much more important that in our SIDS environments we bring together, to the greatest extent possible, the combined resources of governments, National Societies and other national partners to get the job done.
The International Federation itself is now stretching its resources to deal in the most effective way possible with the impact of the Indian Ocean tsunami, but at the same time it is looking at what it needs to do to strengthen its own working relationships with partners.
One such, of course, is the World Meteorological Organisation, and I am able to say here that we intend to take up the issue of a closer partnership with the WMO as soon as this meeting is over. We will take the Mauritius outcomes, and those of the forthcoming World Conference on Disaster Reduction, into that planning.
My delegation looks forward to the outcomes of the discussion which we are having in this important workshop being incorporated into the conclusions of the Meeting itself, and being taken to the World Conference on Disaster Reduction. It is our view that the particular issue of the vulnerability to disasters of small island developing states has received too little attention in the ten years since the Barbados Plan of Action was adopted.
More importantly, the draft outcome document for this Meeting has no reference to the work which must be done at community levels, usually through the Red Cross Red Crescent or civil society, if the impact of disasters is to be mitigated and rebuilding is to take place.
Our hope is that the Meeting participants will be in a position to reflect on this, and incorporate appropriate references to these community realities in the documents.