Ladies and gentlemen,
It is a great pleasure and an honour to be with you here today to deliver the closing address of the ‘Dubai International Humanitarian Aid and Development Conference and Exhibition’.
This three-day event could not have been more timely, given the quite extraordinary and unfortunate disasters which have occurred just in the past couple of months alone – first of all with disastrous floods and cyclone in Australia; and then with the earthquake in New Zealand which destroyed much of Christchurch; and most recently the terrible earthquake and tsunami in Japan.
Our hearts go out to all those who have suffered, or have lost loved ones, or their homes and businesses, in these terrible disasters.
These catastrophes have been unavoidable, and have caused enormous damage to property and life. But their effects have been mitigated by information and communication technologies in a number of important ways.
This conference has explored many of these in detail – and I was pleased to see that my colleague, Cosmas Zavazava, who heads up our Emergency Communications department in ITU’s Telecommunication Development Bureau, was able to participate in the conference and to contribute some of ITU’s key messages concerning disaster and emergency communications.
I would therefore like to take this opportunity this afternoon not just to sum up, but to help us leave Dubai today with a sense of purpose and optimism – strengthened in our resolve to make the best possible use of ICTs in addressing and responding to humanitarian crises, now and in the future.
Ladies and gentlemen,
ICTs play a crucial role in several different areas, including monitoring and warning; disaster preparedness; and response. Let me address these one at a time.
Concerning monitoring and warning, enormous progress has already been made, especially in terms of being able to take action ahead of extreme weather events, such as drought or winter storms, and especially hurricanes and cyclones.
I was personally very relieved to see that the loss of life in Australia recently, as a result of the severe flooding and Cyclone Yasi, in Queensland, was very much lower than would have been the case had it not been for advance warnings made possible by satellite tracking and monitoring systems.
Cyclones of this intensity have in the past caused severe loss of life in Queensland – with Cyclone Tracy in 1974 resulting in 71 deaths, for example. But because people knew when and where Cyclone Yasi was going to make landfall, they were able to shelter from the storm, and only one death was recorded.
Remote sensing is of course also very important in terms of environmental monitoring and climate change mitigation.
Turning now to disaster preparedness, ICTs play a dual role, firstly in giving people on the ground a much better chance of survival, and secondly in allowing for a better, faster and more efficient and effective response, when disasters do occur.
Small improvements in technological progress can make a huge difference in this regard – for example getting more accurate and timely weather data, or even something as simple as today’s communication devices having much-improved battery-life.
Looking at response, we may not be able to prevent catastrophes from occurring – and in the case of earthquakes it is often impossible to provide any warning they are about to occur – but ICTs can play an absolutely vital role when disasters happen.
Most notably, we can help to restore vital communications on the ground – via the use of satellite phones and mobile base stations, for example – even when existing physical communications network infrastructure has been destroyed.
And we have seen the incredible benefits of this when disasters have occurred in recent years – from helping families to get news of missing loved ones, to helping medical staff know when and where they are most urgently needed, to helping coordinate search and rescue teams and the provision of relief supplies.
During the terrible Japanese earthquake and tsunami earlier this month, I was also interested to notice that ICTs were also playing a role in helping distressed and anxious victims and relatives come together through the use of search engines and across various social networking platforms.
As an organization which is unique in the United Nations system in having both Member States and sector membership, ITU is a tremendous believer in the power of partnership.
We therefore work with humanitarian relief agencies and technical partners to restore lost communication links. We collaborate with experts on new disaster prediction and alert systems. And we broker treaties like the Tampere Convention, which removes barriers to the rapid deployment of wireless equipment by disaster response teams.
With ICTs critical in every phase of disaster management, we work across all three ITU sectors – radiocommunications, standardization and development – to help in every way we can.
Aspects of radiocommunication services associated with disasters include disaster prediction, detection, alerting and relief. And when fixed line infrastructure is significantly or completely destroyed by a disaster, radiocommunication services are the only ones that can be employed for disaster relief operations.
Through our standardization activities, we work to ensure a technology-neutral approach at both the network and device level.
We develop technical standards that facilitate the use of public telecommunication services and systems for communications during emergency, disaster relief and mitigation operations.
In such circumstances, technical features need to be in place to ensure that users who must communicate at a time of disaster have the communication channels they need, with appropriate security and with the best possible quality of service.
And we help, through our Development Sector, on the ground, when disasters occur – as you will have heard from Mr Zavazava during this conference.
We regularly deploy satellite terminals when they are needed – most recently to Japan, for example – and also set up mobile base stations. This equipment helps to restore communication links both for humanitarian agencies and victims, and can be used to provide services such as telemedicine facilities (as is the case today in Pakistan, for example).
When needed – as in Haiti last year – we also send experts to set up equipment and assess how networks can be rehabilitated.
The Development Sector also designs and implements early warning systems; designs national emergency telecommunication plans; and develops standard operating procedures to harmonize emergency telecommunications practices.
ITU Member States for their part can do a great deal to help by creating the right legal and regulatory environment – for example by ratifying and implementing the Tampere Convention, and incorporating disaster management measures in their national ICT plans.
We also look to the private sector to continue its good work in research and innovation, and we welcome technological progress that will further help the victims of catastrophes and disasters, and improve the delivery of humanitarian aid.
Ladies and gentlemen,
It is an unfortunate reality that disasters do occur, and that we are often powerless to prevent them.
But by leveraging the power of ICTs we can do so much to mitigate disasters. And I encourage each and every one of you to leave here in a spirit of optimism about what can be achieved – if we work together, in partnership, to take full advantage of technological progress at the service of humanity.