The Director-General of UNESCO, Koïchiro Matsuura, has offered UNESCO’s support to the countries devastated by the earthquake off the coast of Sumatra and the ensuing tsunami, and expressed his sorrow at the tragic loss of life in the region.
Writing to the King of Thailand, and to the presidents of India, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Maldives, and Sri Lanka, the Director-General voiced his "deep sadness" and extended his "profound sympathy" to the families and friends of the victims of this unprecedented disaster.
Mr Matsuura said that "UNESCO stands ready" to assist the national authorities within its fields of competence and "give whatever support it can to the United Nations Emergency Relief Coordinator’s efforts."
Priority will be given to extending existing programmes regarding the study and monitoring of tsunamis and earthquakes to the Indian Ocean and other vulnerable areas such as the Caribbean, and teaching people how to prepare for, and cope with such disasters.
Expert missions will be sent to assess immediate, medium and long-term needs in the Organization’s other fields of competence. In education, for example, UNESCO will mobilize its partners, including professional teachers organizations and NGOs, to provide psychological support to traumatized children and orphans. It will also look at ways of helping displaced children and children left handicapped by the disaster to continue their schooling.
Several sites inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List were hit by the recent earthquake and tsunami. Among the damaged cultural sites are the Old Town of Galle and its Fortifications in Sri Lanka; and, in India, Mahabalipuram and the Sun Temple of Koranak. Natural sites damaged include the Ujung Kulon National Park and Tropical Rainforest of Sumatra, both in Indonesia. UNESCO will send missions to assess damage to these sites and decide on appropriate action.
UNESCO will also undertake a study of the disaster’s impact on the biosphere and examine ways in which man-made environmental damage, such as deforestation or the destruction of mangroves and coral reefs, may have aggravated the impact of the tsunami.
The Organization’s existing programmes already provide the framework for these activities. The International Coordination Group for the Tsunami Warning System in the Pacific (ICG/ITSU), operated by UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC), is the only tsunami warning system anywhere. It has been seeking the support required to extend its activities to the Indian Ocean and other regions, and already last year recommended the development of a tsunami warning system for the Indian Ocean.
UNESCO’s Earthquake Programme features among the Organization’s risk preparedness and disaster mitigation activities, promoting a better understanding of the distribution in time and location of natural hazards and of their intensity. It also helps establish reliable seismological networks and provides expertise for rational land use plans and safe construction.
Important opportunities to rally support for the extension of early warning systems as well as natural disaster prevention and mitigation, including public awareness campaigns and education programmes, will arise next month at two major United Nations conferences.
January 10 to 14, the Mauritius International Meeting will address the multiple environmental, economic and social challenges facing the world’s 51 small island developing States, which are extremely vulnerable to natural disasters. In Mauritius UNESCO will emphasize the importance of equipping youth with the knowledge and skills they require for their future, and the role of culture in the sustainable development of small island developing States.
This meeting will be followed by the World Conference on Disaster Reduction in Kobe, Japan, January 18-22. UNESCO will chair three sessions on: how education can save lives when natural disaster strikes; cultural heritage risk management; and global initiatives to improve knowledge and the capacity to deal with floods and landslides.