120-plus countries ponder global effects of Y2KDecember 12, 1998
Web posted at: 8:50 p.m. EST (0150 GMT)
UNITED NATIONS (CNN) -- Global cash shortages, shipping delays, flight disruptions and power breakdowns.
Those are some of the possible disruptions from the millennium computer bug that were addressed by more than 120 member states at the United Nations on Friday.
For the first time, the world body hosted a meeting of national coordinators in the hope that personal contacts will lead to regional plans to forestall some of the nightmare scenarios feared by the public.
The delegates agreed to press their governments to assign the "highest priority" to the problem and suggested tapping a World Bank trust fund to help poor countries pay for bringing their computer systems into compliance, according to a statement from conference chairman Ahmad Kamal.
Kamal, Pakistan's ambassador to the United Nations, said more than 110 delegates at the brainstorming seminar were from developing countries whose computers could be particularly affected.
Many older computer programs can read only the last two digits of the year and may process the year 2000 as if it were 1900.
"Perceptions are going to govern our reaction to this," Kamal told reporters during a break in the closed-door session.
"It appears that electricity and power, whether nuclear or hydroelectric, is a critically important sector," he said.
Banking and finance are also key because of the linkages between money transfer systems and telecommunications.
The U.S. representative at the conference, John Koskinen, told journalists that while much work had already been done in those two sectors, much less progress had been made in others such as shipping.
He pointed out that 95 percent of all goods enter the United States via maritime shipping. "That's escaped attention while people focused on the other critical areas," he said.
Some shippers have already announced that they may stay at sea on January 1, 2000, rather than risk getting stuck at ports hit by the computer bug.
And airlines could refuse to fly to countries that cannot demonstrate that their air traffic control network can cope after the millennium.
Officials are "beginning to move more aggressively" in aviation, Koskinen said.
Kamal said the meeting discussed so-called "SWAT teams" that would follow up problems after the January 1, 2000, deadline, and include international crisis teams who would visit countries in need of technical support.
He said cross-border regional contingency planning was needed in each sector, such as electrical power grids, which "don't stop at the political border."
Joseph Connor, U.N. undersecretary general for management, told the meeting that not only were the consequences of the 2000 problem unpredictable, but not all failures would occur at midnight on December 31, 1999.
He noted that some failures, including credit cards being rejected as "expired," are already happening, while "other problems will continue to appear well into the next century."
According to Connor and the Gartner Group, a technology research firm, the estimated global cost of remedying Y2K could be as high as $600 billion.
Connor warned that possible litigation after the event could reach $1.4 trillion worldwide.
"The U.N. was forged to bring order to a world wracked by technological disaster -- Hiroshima and Nagasaki," said Jonathan Spalter, associate director of information for the United States Information Agency. "Now, it's trying to do it again."
Agence France Presse contributed to this story.
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