President Gayoom of the Maldives, who had called the meeting, set the sombre tone. Reminding delegates that, on average, his country's 1,196 islands jut just three feet above the waves, he warned: "We are an endangered nation."
Ten years on the gloomy predictions are coming true, faster that anyone expected. As we report on page one today, two islands in the Pacific Ocean nation of Kiribati - Tebua Tarawa and Abanuea - have already disappeared beneath the waves. And others, reports the official South Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP) have almost gone, both in Kiribati and in the neighbouring island nation of Tuvalu.
So far the seas have completely engulfed only uninhabited, relatively small islands. But all around the shores of the world's atolls - often described as idylls - the crisis is growing.
Populated islands are already suffering. So far this year the main islands of Kiribati, Tuvalu and the Marshall Islands (also in the Pacific) have suffered severe floods as high tides demolish sea walls, bridges and roads and swamp homes and plantations. Almost the entire coastline of the 29 atolls of the Marshall Islands is eroding, reports SPREP. Second World War graves on its main Majuro atoll are being washed away, roads and sub-soils have been swept into the sea and the airport has been flooded several times despite being supposedly protected by a high sea wall.
The people of Tuvalu are finding it difficult to grow their crops because the rising seas are poisoning the soil with salt. In both Kiribati and the Marshall Islands, says SPREP, families are desperately trying to keep the waves at bay by dumping trucks, cars and other old machinery in the sea and surrounding them with rocks.
"Sea-level rise is so horrible here the people just don't want to think about it," said Jorelik Tibonn, general manager of the Marshall Islands' national environmental protection agency. "There is nothing they can do to stop it."
It is much the same story far away in the Maldives in the Indian Ocean. The beaches of one-third of its 200 inhabited islands are being swept away. "Sea-level rise is not a fashionable scientific hypothesis," says President Gayoom. "It is a fact."
The seas are rising partly because global warming is melting glaciers and nibbling away at the polar ice caps, but mainly because the oceans expand as their water gets warmer. Scientists' best estimate is that these processes will raise sea levels by about one and a half feet over the next century, not apparently a large amount but quite enough to damn several island nations.
The higher the seas rise, the more often storms will sweep the waves across the narrow atolls carrying away the land - and storms are expected to increase as the world warms up. And many islands will become uninhabitable long before they physically disappear, as salt from the sea contaminates the underground freshwater supplies on which they depend.
Some families have already begun to leave the most endangered atolls. The small but higher island nation of Niue has already taken in refugees from the Marshall Islands and Kiribati has begun moving people from its most vulnerable areas. In future the whole population of the Marshall Islands, the Maldives, Kiribati, Tokelau and Tuvalu may have to be evacuated, spelling an end to centuries-old cultures: the people of the Marshall Islands, for example, have lived there since before the Anglo-Saxons came to Britain.
Even islands with higher ground such as Tonga Nauru, Barbados and the Bahamas are likely to suffer grave damage as coastal plains, where most of their people live, are inundated.
All the world's small island states put together contribute only 0.6 per cent of the pollution that causes global warming.
But as the seas rise much bigger countries will also start to suffer. President Gayoom notes that a three-foot rise would flood out 10 per cent of the people of Egypt, 60 per cent of the population of Bangladesh and 70 million people in coastal China. And President Clinton has warned of grave damage to low-lying parts of the United States such as Florida.
Once the seas start to rise there is not much that can be done about it. Building sea walls is prohibitively expensive, especially for poor countries. Providing temporary protection for just one of the Marshall Islands' 29 atolls would cost $100m, says SPREP - well over twice the entire national wealth produced in the country each year.
And such is the awesome inertia built into the world system that the present rise in sea levels merely reflects the relatively minor global warming of decades ago. As the world heats up it will be storing up much greater trouble for the future.
The rise is effectively unstoppable. "Once the process is set in motion," says Robert Watson, chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the official body that brings together the world's top scientists in the field, "it cannot be slowed down in anything less than a few millennia."
Kiribati formerly the Gilbert, Phoenix and Line Islands: 313 square miles of land scattered over 2 million square miles of ocean; population 75,000.
Tuvalu formerly the Ellice Islands: chain of islands 420 miles long, total land area 7.25 square miles; population 9,300.
Marshall Islands 1,200 islands scattered over 700,000 square miles, 70 square miles of land; pop 50,000.
Tokelau territory of New Zealand: three atolls, total land area four square miles; population 1,700.
All the above are in the Pacific.
In the Indian Ocean:
The Maldives: 1,296 islands, 202 inhabited, in an area of ocean 510 miles long by 80 miles wide, total land area 115 square miles; pop 220,000.Reuse content