The Inter-governmental Meeting to finalise the text of the draft SAARC Agreement on Rapid Response to Natural Disasters concluded in Male on Thursday with a broad agreement on the issue that needed to be addressed.

According to the global database on disasters, over the past forty years, South Asia faced as many as 1,333 disasters that killed 980 thousand people, affected 2.4 billion lives and damaged assets worth US$ 105 billion. These totals are, by far, the highest among the recorded disasters in various geographic regions of the world.

Highlighting this, Fathimath Dhiyana Saeed, Secretary-General of SAARC said in her address that every major earthquake in the Himalayas would affect more than one country; every cyclone in the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea has the potential to affect two countries at a time; every major flood has its origin and consequence beyond a single country.

“The objective of the draft Agreement before you is to put in place an effective mechanism for rapid response to disasters to achieve substantial reduction in loss of lives and loss of social, economic and environmental assets in times of a disaster. It is based on the principle of respect for the sovereignty, territorial integrity and national unity of all Member States and the mechanism will only be triggered — and this is an important point, distinguished delegates, the mechanism will only be triggered — if a request for assistance is made by a Member State. The draft Agreement sets out the principles and modalities for provision of assistance and relief to an affected Party including exemptions and facilities for provision of assistance, transit of personnel, equipment, facilities and materials,” she said, in a recorded address which was broadcast at the conference.

The idea of establishing a mechanism for rapid response to natural disasters had been voiced at the 15th SAARC summit held in Colombo in 2008. Since then, two expert level meetings were held to discuss various aspects of the agreement, including security and customs and immigration clearances required for setting up such a system in the region. The mechanism is proposed to be created under the already existing SAARC Disaster Management Centre (SDMC).

If the draft is finalized, it will be signed at the 17th SAARC Summit to be held in the Maldives from November 10-11, 2011, said Haveeru online.

The Secretary General pointed out that six out of eight member states of SAARC were located, partly or fully, on the Himalayas and its associated ranges, which are still adjusting to tectonic movements. This had triggered some of the worst earthquakes and the probability of even more disastrous earthquakes poses a grave threat to human lives, livelihoods and infrastructure in the region.

Also, the Himalayas have the largest deposits of glaciers outside the polar region, which are melting due to climate change. The immediate consequence has been the increasing incidence of flash floods, glacial lake outburst floods and riverine floods. The long term impact of this phenomenon presents a serious threat to the perennial river systems of the Indus, Ganga and Brahamputra that sustained life and civilizations in South Asia for millennia, she said.

“South Asia supports one-fourth of humanity with less than 5 per cent of global income. This means that poverty and deprivation that we face in South Asia puts us in a situation of acute vulnerability. South Asia has the largest concentration of mega cities which are growing rapidly,” she added.

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