National year 2000 experts from more than 130 United Nations member countries convened here today to discuss emergency planning and crisis management issues.
It is the first time that national year 2000 coordinators met under one roof, according to Ambassador Ahmad Kamal of Pakistan, who organized today's meeting, the U.N.'s first international conference on the Year 2000 problem. Kamal is the chairman of the UN Economic and Social Council's working group on informatics.
The delegates this morning discussed and examined reports on the state of Y2K preparedness in various sectors, including telecommunications, electricity and nuclear energy, oil and gas, banking and finance, aviation, and shipping and ports. Some of the reports are available online on the U.N. Web site at http://www.un.org/members/Year 2000/.
In the afternoon, delegates finished up the meeting in regional breakout sessions.
The delegates spent most of the day behind closed doors to "encourage frank discussion," Kamal said.
Today's meeting was unprecedented in several ways, Kamal said. Not only was it the first time that national year 2000 experts met in an international venue, but it took only several months to get the meeting organized -- normally a process that takes several years for a meeting of this scope.
In addition, there were about 110 developing countries at the meeting, Kamal said.
In the opening session of the meeting, U.N. Undersecretary General for Administration and Management Joseph Connor told the delegates that, "the essence of the Year 2000 dilemma is that it is impossible to accurately predict the effect on our world."
The ultimate objective of the meeting, Kamal said, was to establish the type and timing of actions to be taken in the coming year, and figure out the right balance of national, regional, and global efforts.
"We know there are deep interlinkages, whether in software or embedded chips," Kamal said. "How deeply they are going to affect systems and how deep the interlinkages are is exactly the sort of problem we are examining," he said"One of our objectives is not only to create awareness . . . but also to start working on contingency planning and crisis management on the assumption that some of these systems will not be working," Kamal added.
"To the extent that we can increase the level of cross-country operations we can more efficiently and effectively deal with the challenge," said John Koskinen, President Bill Clinton's Year 2000 czar and a delegate here.
One idea that was discussed today and which the national experts will continue to develop is the concept of "SWAT" (from the military term "special weapons and training") teams, Kamal said. The idea is that the national experts would create teams of specialists that would focus exclusively on specific industry sectors where problems are expected to arise, and develop contingency plans.
A contingency plan in the banking arena, for example, was suggested by the U.S. Federal Reserve Board today. Board officials told delegates that public paranoia about the year 2000 problem could make people hoard cash, bringing about a shortage of bank notes, Kamal said. The board officials suggested that central banks print more bank notes to prevent a shortage and an ensuing panic, according to Kamal.
Some of the areas that may be affected most critically are electrical, nuclear and hydroelectric power and financial systems.
In the financial world, Kamal said, "an event in Southeast Asia can ripple . . . to Wall Street."
Before the delegates went back to closed-door sessions this afternoon, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan spoke of the potential disruptions that the Year 2000 problem poses.
"On the national level, people will face disruption in their daily lives: energy supplies, supplies on supermarket shelves, public transportation and healthcare will be affected," Annan said.
"On the international level, the impact will be felt through the global interdependencies of trade, manufacturing, transportation, energy, telecommunications and defense technologies," he said.
One of the most valuable things being accomplished here today is that the national coordinators are finding out who their counterparts are throughout the world, in order to communicate with each other directly, according to Koskinen.
"We don't have time to go through normal channels," he said.
Members of the organizing committee that set up today's meeting come from Bulgaria, Chile, Mexico, the Netherlands, the Philippines, the Republic of Korea, South Africa, the U.K., and the U.S.